Threat of Hantavirus Lingers For Yosemite Campers

Yosemite campers fear they have hantavirus, which already killed two campers.

August 29, 2012, 6:24 PM

Aug. 30, 2012— -- Instead of basking in post-vacation nostalgia, the people who camped at Yosemite National Park this summer are worriedly watching for signs of a deadly airborne disease called hantavirus which has already killed two campers since July.

About 700 people dialed Yosemite's hantavirus hotline in the first 24 hours it was open Tuesday, looking for information about whether they could have contracted the disease and what to do if they might have it, said park ranger Kari Cobb.

Earlier this week, the National Park Service sent health advisory emails to the 3,000 people who stayed in Yosemite's "Signature Cabins" from June 10 to Aug. 24 this summer to let them know about a disease outbreak that struck four park visitors, killing two of them. The disease comes from inhaling or ingesting particles of mouse feces or urine.

It has a 40 percent mortality rate, but takes one to six weeks to incubate, leaving people frightened and uncertain. Flulike symptoms -- chills, muscle aches, fevers -- initially appear, and the disease progresses rapidly. Within a day or two it can be very difficult to breathe.

Alma Fernandez, 21, said she was afraid she could catch the disease by biking by Curry Village during her family vacation to Yosemite in July.

"I started reading the news about it, so it just kind of freaked me out," said Fernandez, a Bakersfield College student. "Can you just walk by and catch it? I didn't know."

As it turns out, you can only get the disease shortly after it leaves the mouse's body, because the virus dies when the droppings dry up, Cobb said. Fernandez asked a few questions on a Yosemite Facebook page and said she checks the news on Yosemite's website regularly.

"It's been almost six weeks since I've gone there, so thank God no one that I went with has had anything wrong," she said.

But for those who stayed in the Curry Village, it's a different, more stressful story.

Jeena Galvan-Martin, 37, of Stockton, Calif. said she couldn't get a reservation to camp at Yosemite this summer, so she brought her 3-year-old and her 11-year old to the park for a day trip the first week in August. When another group didn't show up for its reservation, park officials offered the available Signature Cabin to Galvan-Martin and her family.

"I don't know if this is fortunate or unfortunate," Galvan-Martin said. "When I heard, I was scared to death."

Galvan-Martin, a stay-at-home mom, said she called the hotline when it opened yesterday to ask whether she can test her kids for the disease before they have symptoms. But since victims can't get diagnosed until they have symptoms, she's keeping an eye on her children for now. So far, everyone seems to be fine.

"It's been nerve-wracking," Galvan-Martin said. "I have a 3-year-old. She catches everything."

Salomon Varela knows how she feels. He said his 2-year-old son played in the dirt and under the family's tent in Curry Village for three days starting Aug. 12. The day after the Varlenas got home was Aug. 16, the same day the National Park Service learned of and announced the first hantavirus death.

Varela said he read about the hantavirus at Yosemite the same day his son's temperature climbed to 102 degrees.

"We were real worried about that," Varela said, adding that he rushed his son to the doctor's office and waited three days for the fever to subside before he could relax. "You worry about the bear; you worry about the mountain lion. You don't tend to worry about the mouse."

He was so disturbed the officials didn't tell him about hantavirus that he called this week, pretending to make a reservation just to see if the registration official would tell him about the outbreak. When he asked about it, he said they told him they were still investigating.

"Somebody died in July," he said. "That's all I need to know."

The California man died in late July from hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, which starts with flulike symptoms, including fever and fatigue, but progresses by making it difficult for victims to breath. A second person from Pennsylvania died from the illness this week. Two others are believed to have contracted the disease as well. They all stayed in the Curry Campgrounds at Yosemite.

But not all tents at the Curry campground are thought to be problematic, Cobb said. Of the 408 stationary tents and cabins guests can rent for the night, only 91 have mouse problems, she said.

The 91 Signature Cabins built in 2009 have a structural problem that allows mice in, so they were all vacated on Monday to allow construction workers to "retrofit them so that they are completely mouse-proof," Cobb said. Guests have been relocated to other parts of the campsite or other parts of the park.

She did not know how much the renovations will cost, but said they were prompted by the hantavirus outbreak.

"This is Yosemite National Park," she said, adding that it's a wild place. "It's quite a chore, but we're identifying which part of the cabins are allowing mice to get in, tearing portions apart and rebuilding."

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