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With annual Lake Minnewaska festival gearing up, officials stress water is safe

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The death of an Alexandria teenager from what health officials believe was caused by a rare amoeba contracted in Lake Minnewaska will not stop the community from celebrating its annual summer festival this week.

The 60th annual Glenwood Waterama, which draws upwards of 20,000 people to the small western Minnesota town, kicks off early Tuesday, with the festival running through July 26.

The festival includes some events that involve the use of Lake Minnewaska, such as the waterskiing shows by the Bald Eagle Water Ski Team and swimming races for children. Those will still go on as planned despite recent fears associated with swimming in the lake.

Ted Hill, the 2015 admiral of Glenwood Waterama, told BringMeTheNews event organizers are following all the recommendations of the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and the Pope County Sheriff's Department in order to host a safe and fun event.

Hill also said that if visitors don't feel comfortable with going in Lake Minnewaska, there are dozens of other events and activities that take place away from the lake, including sporting events, parades, street dances, tractor pulls, coronations, among others.

Officials reassure public that lakes are safe

Hunter Boutain, 14, became "critically ill" after he developed symptoms of a rare and severe brain infection – primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) – after swimming in Lake Minnewaska. The PAM infection, which MDH describes as “very rare and severe,” is caused by a microscopic amoeba called Naegleria fowleri, which is found in fresh water and soil around the world.

In the days after Hunter's death, some in the area feared the news would keep people away from the area, which relies heavily on tourism in the summer months, KARE 11 reported. And the Glenwood Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce noted on its website that it had been "hard on our community, resorts and businesses."

WCCO reported in the days following Hunter's death that some called to cancel reservations at local resorts, while the mayor and others in the area kicked off a campaign to reassure people the lake is safe.

Officials continue to stress that a person's risk of contracting the disease while participating in water-related activities on Lake Minnewaska is the same as any other lake or stream – and that risk is very low, the Pope County Tribune reported.

"Persons do not need to avoid partaking in summer activities on Lake Minnewaska. We encourage you to continue to enjoy the multitude of lake activities that are available all around us," the Pope County Sheriff's Office website says.

Even Hunter's mother is urging people to continue to enjoy Minnewaska.

Nose plugs are the new norm

Health officials say the amoeba infects people by entering through the nose and traveling up to the brain and spinal cord. One way swimmers can reduce their risk of contracting the infection is by holding their nose shut or wearing a nose plug.

Nose plugs seem to be the new norm for swimmers in the lake, a family who grew up in the area told BringMeTheNews, as swimmers take a little more precaution when diving in. There are also some kids who choose to plug their nose when they go underwater, the families said.

Besides the added accessory, they say not much has changed since Hunter's death. The lake is still filled with boaters and people swimming, but city beaches (located in Glenwood and Starbuck) are a little less crowded than typical summer days.

Glenwood City Administrator Dave Iverson told the Pioneer Press beaches have been less crowded, noting that several things could play into that, saying, "We had some lake itch (swimmer's itch) around the same time, and we've had some weather, so it could be all those things in combination."

The Lake Minnewaska Triathlon, which is set for Aug. 1, will also go on as scheduled, according to the event's website, saying event coordinators "are confident [Hunter's death] is a very rare occurrence with many factors, but to ease your fears we will have nose plugs available for the participants at check in."

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