A third person has died of the rare hantavirus pulmonary syndrome after visiting Yosemite National Park, raising the total number of people infected there this summer to eight.
Meanwhile, the Tuolumne County Public Health Department and other Sonora-area agencies are fielding calls from tourists who are worried about hantavirus risk. Fear has also grown among locals who visited the park within the past month.
“It’s out there floating around and people are concerned,” said Chris Link, general manager of the Best Western Plus Sonora Oaks Hotel and Conference Center. “It’s on everybody’s lips because it’s in the media.”
He said he hasn’t noticed a slowdown in reservations at the hotel, but guests have been asking hotel staff about hantavirus risk. And he suspects some tourists are avoiding the entire Mother Lode region because of recent media reports about Yosemite.
News of the first two Yosemite hantavirus cases came out in a California Department of Public Health release on Aug. 16, which reported a possible link between hantavirus pulmonary syndrome and the park’s popular Curry Village campground.
The earliest confirmed Curry Village hantavirus case was a 49-year-old Southern California woman who stayed in a “signature tent cabin” between June 10 and 13. She was hospitalized for two weeks in July but is expected to survive.
Since then, a 36-year-old Alameda County man and a 45-year-old man from Pennsylvania, who both visited the park over the summer, have died of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome.
The third fatality, disclosed by park officials Thursday afternoon, was a person who visited Yosemite from Kanawha County in West Virginia. Like the other two people who died, the visitor stayed in a signature tent cabin at some point this summer.
More information about the person’s age, and the time of their stay in Yosemite, was not available Thursday.
Mariposa County Public Health Officer Dr. Charles Mosher, whose jurisdiction includes Curry Village, said he didn’t yet have specifics about the latest fatality. The park wanted to send out its own press release before public health departments disseminate information, he added.
Symptoms of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome may not appear for up to six weeks after exposure to the virus. They begin with fever and aches, which can move on to severe difficulty breathing and symptoms similar to pneumonia or bronchitis.
Humans contract hantavirus through contact with the urine, droppings or saliva of infected rodents, primarily deer mice. Sweeping stirs the dried particles into the air, making exposure more likely.
The California Department of Public Health became aware of the first likely Curry Village fatality on Aug. 9, but the public wasn’t notified of the fatality until the Aug. 16 release from the California Department of Public Health.
Three other people have been infected after staying in the signature cabins, which are located in the Boystown area of Curry Village. They are described by Yosemite as “either improving or recovering.”
An additional person was infected after staying in the High Sierra Camps, which have tent cabins but are accessible only by foot or horseback. His case was mild and he is recovering, according to the release from Yosemite.
Groveland resident Bert Howard visited Yosemite in early August with a group of friends who also stayed in Curry Village cabins, though not the signature cabins.
His friend Lyon Rathbun, an English professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville, described the visit as “very typical” — except for one minor incident on the morning of Aug. 8.
“There was a crew that came through and they were washing down the tents with a high-pressure power washer,” Rathbun said. “I asked one of them why they were cleaning the tents and he said their supervisors were going to be coming in and inspecting them.”
In fact, it was the next day that officials from the California Department of Public Health and the Mariposa County Public Health Department arrived in Curry Village for their initial assessment of hantavirus risk.
On the following day, Aug. 10, Mosher attended a briefing that also included officials from the National Park Service.
Within the next few days, discussions took place between public health officials, the National Park Service and representatives of DNC Parks & Resorts about the timing and content of the press release, Mosher said.
Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said the park first became aware of the possible connection between Curry Village and hantavirus in late July. He said park officials “needed to be sure” before releasing the information because of the “public trust issues” involved.
But Rathbun, whose wife has an autoimmune disorder that makes her more susceptible to disease, said the couple would have liked to know about the hantavirus risk at the time of their stay from Aug. 5 to 8.
When he and Howard asked about the power washing, nothing was said about hantavirus, Rathbun noted. They came away confused.
“It’s easy, in retrospect, to second-guess the decisions (the park) made,” he said. “But I am a little alarmed they didn’t warn us. People who are older or whose immune systems are compromised might have wanted to be informed and reconsider.”
Tuolumne County Public Health Officer Dr. Todd Stolp said his office has been fielding several calls a day about hantavirus in Yosemite, from both locals who’ve visited the park and people who are there now.
“This isn’t a time to go trapping every mouse in the county,” he said. “The point is to be informed and be aware of this.”
Blood tests are only recommended if a patient has a fever and symptoms consistent with hantavirus within six weeks of their stay in Yosemite, according to guidelines that Stolp has sent to local healthcare providers.
The Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau has received only a few calls about the hantavirus situation in Yosemite, according to Executive Director Nanci Sikes.
“We’re going to leave that to the experts and not really delve into what’s happening there,” she said. “All the (Yosemite) ‘Gateway Partners’ made a pact. We’re not going to get into anything technical.”
For concerned tourists, the Visitors Bureau’s Sonora and Chinese Camp locations have been distributing handouts about hantavirus from the National Park Service and the Centers for Disease Control.
Link is trying to inform the public that there are plenty of safe lodging options near the park.
“I want to make sure that people know there’s no need to write off the entire Yosemite or Gateway area,” Link said. “Just practice what they tell you to do and enjoy Yosemite.”