Meningitis Linked to Death

Meningitis Linked to Death

Gunston teacher?s sudden death linked to meningitis; health officials say little reason to suspect students exposed.

Parents, students and faculty at Gunston Middle School are reacting to the sudden death of Jonathan Cook.

Cook, a Louisiana native who lived in Fairlington, fell ill over the weekend and died the evening of Sunday, May 4. Public health officials investigated the incident and determined that Cook died from a bacterial infection that can cause meningitis. ?I think everyone is very saddened by his death and kind of anxious to see what caused it,? said Mary Callow, a Gunston PTA member.

Public health officials spent the time since Cook?s death identifying students, staff and teachers who were in close contact with the teacher. Gunston principal Greg Croghan sent letters to parents on Monday and Tuesday, informing them of Cook?s death, explaining the cause and the public health investigation.

Despite the possibility of an infectious disease outbreak, public school officials did not consider closing Gunston. Classes were in session as usual this week. ?We are taking every precaution to ensure the health and well-being of our students and staff,? wrote Croghan in the letter to parents.

?I?m not particularly concerned about it,? said Ralph Silberman, a parent of two Gunston students. ?I?m basically trusting them to do their jobs.?

COOK, 41, HAD no family in the Washington area ? he was born in Shreveport, La., and most of his relatives lived in Louisiana and Texas.

On Tuesday, Croghan said he had spoken with one of Cook?s sisters in Texas, breaking the news of her brother?s death. At press time, funeral details for the teacher weren?t resolved.

While questions about the cause of Cook?s death lingered on Monday, Croghan said Gunston students and staff were more concerned by the loss of a colleague and mentor.

?Our students have handled it pretty well,? he said. ?Of course Monday, it was kind of tough. There was some crying.?

Cook had taught at Gunston for five years. Most of that time he spent as a social studies and math teacher.

However, he spent the last two years heading up the Solution Shop. It was a program that Cook himself designed, intended to help students who needed extra attention and academic assistance.

He also spent his last weekend giving students a little extra attention. Gunston hosted its annual lock-in party for eighth grade students, spending the night of Friday, May 2, at the school, and Cook served as a chaperone from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m.

?We?re reeling from this sudden news,? Croghan said.

ON TUESDAY AFTERNOON, state and local public health officials said that while Cook?s death posed the risk of an outbreak of meningitis, the teacher didn?t die of meningitis. The type of infection that struck Cook does cause meningitis, but it can also lead to septicemia, a blood infection that can also prove deadly.

Public health officials got involved in the case early Monday morning, said Denise Sockwell, a regional epidemiologist for the Virginia Department of Health. ?It is not uncommon for us to have sporadic cases,? she said, and there have already been several this year in Arlington.

Cook?s death drew more attention because, as a teacher, he came into regular contact with more people, increasing the number of people potentially at risk of infection. Gunston has about 650 students, and about 140 eighth graders attended Friday?s lock-in, along with a handful of adult chaperones.

But health officials weren?t alarmed about the number of possible exposures. ?This bacteria is typically not easy to spread,? Sockwell said. Normal classroom contact isn?t considered close contact, which usually means sharing eating utensils, kissing or otherwise sharing body fluids from the mouth and nose.

Officials have been interviewing people who were in contact with Cook, and expect to finish preliminary interviews by Wednesday afternoon.

If medication is required, officials prescribe Cipro for adults, Rifampin for juveniles. In Cook?s case, only two people exposed require medication, and no students have needed medication so far.

CALLOW SAID CROGHAN?S leadership was comforting during the uncertain period of time between Cook?s death and Tuesday?s announcement. ?I have no reservations about how this will be handled,? said Callow.

?It?s kind of ?wait and see,?? Callow said Monday night. Despite the dearth of information, Callow wasn?t worried and thought most parents were also calm. ?I haven?t heard from any other parents,? she said. ?We?re hearing more from reporters.?

Neither Callow nor her seventh-grade daughter knew Cook personally. Counselors were available this week at Gunston to help students deal with the loss.

Despite uncertainty about Cook?s death, Silberman said he wasn?t alarmed when he heard the news. ?I thought it was a decent letter given what I knew,? he said. ?Obviously it?s surprising? but there?s really no immediate impact upon my kids or me.?

Surprise was a common feeling early this week, as some parents recalled seeing Cook, with no signs of illness, just days before. ?Mr. Cook was one of the chaperones, so he was there on Saturday morning,? said Steve MacInnes, whose son was at the lock-in.