NEW PHILADELPHIA — Health officials are stressing that Tuscarawas County residents have no cause for concern after the deaths of two county residents from bacterial meningitis over the past two weeks.
"While meningitis is serious, I want to stress that this is not an outbreak situation," Tuscarawas County Health Commissioner Katie Seward said at a press conference Thursday at the Tuscarawas County Justice Center. Other healthcare officials from around the county were also on hand.
"Rather, these are two individual, very distinct cases," she said. "At this time there is no action necessary by any member of the public, including those who were close contacts with the individual."
She reported that the health department received laboratory confirmation Thursday that the bacteria responsible for the second meningitis death was different from the initial case.
"The two meningitis cases are not related," Seward said.
Ryan Freeland, 14, of Port Washington, a freshman at Indian Valley High School, died of the disease on Dec. 15. On Tuesday, Heather Yoder, 45, of Sugarcreek, secretary at Dundee Elementary in the Garaway Local School District, died of bacterial meningitis.
Freeland died from a bacteria called streptococcus pneumoniae, which Seward said is common in 5 percent to 90 percent of healthy individuals.
Yoder died from a bacteria called Group B streptococcus, which is common in the gastrointestinal tract. Group B commonly causes meningitis in infants and is typically spread from the mother to the child during birth, Seward said.
"It lives in the intestinal tract and can cause opportunistic bacteria to develop into meningitis for reasons that are really not quite understood," she said.
Because of the bacteria’s location in the body, Group B is less transmittable to other people.
Symptoms of meningitis include fever, chills, headache, stiff neck and back and nausea and/or vomiting. Anyone experiencing those symptoms should seek medical attention immediately, she said.
"In these cases, the symptoms’ onset were so rapid and so severe that there’s nothing that could have been done differently," Seward said. "We’re talking a few hours from someone feeling normal to being very, very ill."
She said it is highly unusual to have two meningitis fatalities in a rural county in such a short time. "It makes it difficult to debunk that there’s some type of epidemic going on."
So far in 2017, there have been nine meningitis deaths in Ohio, including the two locally.
According to Yoder's obituary, she was married and had three children. She had attended NewPointe Church for 24 years.
"The Garaway School community suffered a tragic loss on Dec. 26 with the passing of Heather Yoder, our beloved secretary at Dundee Elementary," schools Superintendent James Millet said in an email to The T-R. "Her energetic and positive spirit were a blessing to our staff, students and community. The thoughts and prayers of the entire Garaway School community go out to the Yoder family. Her smile was contagious and she had a way of making the people around her better. She will be greatly missed.
"When we return to school on Jan. 2, Garaway will provide grief counselors at our 7-12 building and Dundee Elementary to help students, parents and friends deal with their thoughts and feelings associated with this loss. Please keep the Yoder family in your thoughts and prayers."
He said the district has been in contact with officials from the Tuscarawas County Health Department, who have conferred with the Ohio Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control for appropriate protocols in dealing with bacterial meningitis. There is no recommended testing or treatment for anyone in the Garaway district.
"There is no infectivity concern for our building, per the health department. However, we are exceeding health department cleaning guidance and taking extra cleaning measures during our break," Millet said. "We are using an industrial disinfecting machine at Dundee Elementary and subsequently at our other buildings."
He noted that Yoder was not sick while school was in session.
Jon Baker is a staff writer for The Times-Reporter.