by KATIE FITZPATRICK, Staff writer
The news that three members of a Lusby family died from a severe respiratory illness spread quickly throughout Calvert County two weeks ago, inciting alarm and confusion in some residents.
On Feb. 23, Ruth Blake, 81, became sick at her home with upper respiratory symptoms. Three of her adult children, Lowell, Vanessa and Elaine, were taking care of her and also developed similar upper respiratory symptoms about Feb. 28.
All four people were hospitalized and became critically ill. Ruth Blake died at home March 1 and Lowell Blake, 58, and Vanessa Blake, 56, have since died. Elaine Blake was hospitalized at Washington Hospital Center and has since been released.
Now, reports about what may have happened to the Blake family are becoming clearer. Press releases from the county and state health departments said preliminary testing indicates the family had influenza H3, a strain of influenza A. David Rogers, health officer for the Calvert County Health Department, said Lowell and Vanessa Blake died from “very severe and unusual complications” caused by the flu and he is still waiting on Ruth Blake’s medical examiner’s results.
Rogers said where and how the family members got the flu is speculation, but there are two known events that may have exposed Ruth Blake to the flu.
Brian W. Buck, 50, who Rogers said was related to the Blakes, was killed Feb. 25 after a 10-ton root ball of a tree fell on top of him. Rogers said Ruth Blake’s home was where the entire family gathered after Buck’s death, and if another family member had the flu, Ruth Blake may have been exposed to it then. Ruth Blake also attended a birthday party on Feb. 15 for one of her grandchildren, which is another place she may have been exposed to the flu, Rogers said.
Rogers said Ruth Blake “was not any more sick than one would expect with a mild case of the flu.” She went to her doctor and was prescribed antibiotics on Feb. 29, Rogers said, and the following day she died. Rogers said she likely died from “some complication of the flu” and the medical examiner’s results will not be available for several weeks, but “she did not die of a secondary pneumonia infection as far as we can tell right now.”
Lowell and Vanessa Blake apparently developed flu-like symptoms around the same time as their mother, Rogers said, but began to develop symptoms of a more serious respiratory infection, pneumonia, about March 2 or 3. Rogers said both Lowell and Vanessa Blake also had Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, a strain of staph bacteria resistant to antibiotics.
On the morning of March 4, Lowell Blake went to CMH with pneumonia and was later transported to Washington Hospital Center where he died March 5. Rogers said he died from the pneumonia due to MRSA infection. Vanessa Blake went to CMH the evening of March 4 with pneumonia and later died the following day.
“Either one or both of them I’m assuming must have been a carrier [of MRSA] and when they got the flu, somehow [it] … may have made their respiratory system less resistant to the MRSA, which then invaded the lungs and caused fatal infections.”
Elaine Blake, who “simply had nothing more than the flu,” is also apparently a carrier of MRSA, but it is a different bacterial strain, Rogers said. Elaine Blake started having flu-like symptoms about March 2, Rogers said, and she probably got the flu from one of the other three family members.
When she went to CMH on March 5, because other family members who died had similar symptoms, hospital staff were concerned that the same thing might happen to her, so she was taken to Washington Hospital Center but later released.
Elaine Blake, the youngest of seven siblings, said she had been taking care of her mother for the last five years and is taking her death, as well as the deaths of her brother and sister, extremely hard. She said her entire family is still grieving.
“We’re still mourning,” Elaine Blake said. “It’s going to take a long time [to heal from this]. It’s something that’s not easy to just get over.”
As word of the flu death spread early this month, news reports containing different information from different press releases confused and panicked the public and rumors quickly spread. Soon, other organizations, including Calvert Memorial Hospital, Calvert County Public Schools and the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, sent out multiple press releases at different times, all containing seemingly conflicting reports.
Elaine Blake said she thinks the media reported on different information too quickly and did not know “what really went on.” She said the media did not get the facts right and it was “very upsetting” to her and her family.
Rogers said he knows that “not everything worked perfectly” when information was being relayed. He said he realizes that the first press release sent that Monday evening was “perplexing to people,” and he and other staff members will review the situation to see how it can be handled better in the future.
“I think there are things we could’ve done better,” Rogers said. “We’re going to review the things that we did and what we can do better, particularly communicating with the media.”
Rogers said the situation became very newsworthy because three family members died at about the same time with similar symptoms, which was unusual.
“If it had just been one [person], it might not have gotten all the attention it did, but because there were two [adult children] and the mother that just died, there was a lot of concern … that we might be dealing with something very dangerous,” Rogers said. “The question was whether it posed any hazard to the community.”
Rogers said staff members worked tirelessly Tuesday, March 6, to try to reassure the community that they were not in danger and that the deaths may be coincidental.
“It was something of a coincidence that you had these three family members all die within two or three days of one another,” Rogers said.
Calvert County Public Schools issued a press release March 6 to try and quell some of the panic. The press release stated that the health and safety of the students and their families is CCPS’s primary concern. School officials said the purpose of the press release was to answer questions from parents and staff.
Bill Chambers, vice president of the school board, said the school system’s press release was geared toward trying to eliminate thoughts that school children were involved.
“I think that was the purpose of putting a release out, to try and keep folks from not assuming that there were young, school-aged children involved in that,” Chambers said.
When the incident was initially reported, because the word “family” was used, “most people would assume” that it’s a parent or guardian with children, Chambers said. The initial reports from the health department didn’t state that those affected were adult family members, Chambers said, which “naturally” caused “some concern and even mild hysteria.”
Chambers said in his “dream world” he would like for the initial reports to have included that the affected family members were adults, and because they weren’t, he believes the school system did the right thing by informing parents of the issue.
“I think the end result was to err on the side of caution and our system does a pretty good job [of that],” Chambers said. “I thought we did the right thing.”
In response to many phone calls from concerned residents, CMH issued a press release March 8 that said three members of the family had died from a strain of the flu and encouraged people to follow basic guidelines, such as washing hands, to keep from becoming ill. The press release said hospital staff was monitoring any flu-like illnesses seen in the emergency room, urgent care centers and the hospital.
James Xinis, president and CEO of CMH, in a written statement Monday said he was proud of how the hospital staff responded to the public’s concerns about the Blake family’s illnesses.
“We always follow the CDC isolation guidelines when caring for anyone with a suspected infections illness and we take precautions every day in every department to prevent the spread of infection,” Xinis said. “This situation demonstrated the extreme importance of the diligence of healthcare providers in that regard. Our infection control department identified the commonalities between the patients quickly and promptly and alerted the health department per our policy.”
The county opened the Emergency Operations Center, which marketing and communications specialist Mark Volland said was “partially opened” to monitor information and help get accurate information out to the public. Volland said representatives from CCPS, the county public information office and the health department worked together to help relay information.
“The county didn’t mobilize in any way other than to support the health department,” Volland said.