Denial: A river that runs through Yosemite NP

Union Democrat Editorial Board /

"The health of our visitors is our paramount concern and we are making every effort to notify and inform our visitors of any potential illness..."

- Don Neubacher, Yosemite National Park superintendent (Aug. 27 press release)

Yosemite National Park officials this week vowed they have strived for transparency in dealing with a hantavirus outbreak at the park, which has sickened four people and killed two others.

But, reporting by The Union Democrat has found, the process has been far more opaque.

In fact, delays in informing the public could have put some park visitors staying at Curry Village in harm's way during the first and, particularly, the second week of August.

Why this would happen is anyone's guess.

We found:

• Park and health officials in "late July" knew a 49-year-old Southern California woman had possibly contracted the rodent-borne virus at Curry Village in June. Experts determined the connection was too tenuous to make an announcement. A state epidemiologist said a single case wasn't unusual enough.

• About a week later, Aug. 9, state health officials were investigating the first case at the park when they learned of a second hantavirus case also possibly involving a June stay at Curry Village. That victim, a 36-year-old Alameda County man, died July 31.

• By Aug. 10, the Curry Village-hantavirus connection had been more firmly established. Yet, apparently due to disagreements among park and health officials about timing the news' release, still another week passed before word got out.

• The state Public Health Department finally issued an Aug. 16 statement confirming the first two cases and their connection to Curry Village.

While news reports two weeks after the fact may have reached many visitors or potential visitors, still another two weeks passed before the park began to directly contact people - that is, via email - who'd stayed at the park between June and August of the possibility of hantavirus exposure. Those emails started going out the night of Monday, Aug. 27.

The delays are inexcusable and could have put visitors in the first and second weeks of August in harm's way.

How many is anyone's guess - but the park says it has contacted 2,900 June to August guests of the cabins.

Park officials insist they have been forthright and transparent from Day 1. But that hardly seems true.

One could blame the creaking wheels of bureaucracy, or the difficulties in making the connections, for the delay, but that doesn't seem to be the case either.

Rather, the situation reflects park officials' reluctance to inform the public of "bad" news - like climbers falling to their deaths, tourists plummeting down waterfalls, or people drowning in high, fast moving rivers.

(They do breathlessly report the "good," like groundbreakings or free admission days).

We've argued with little success that - beside the abstract idea that the public has a right to know what goes on in a National Park - valuable lessons can be learned by informing the public of such tragedies. Lessons like: Don't dangle over waterfalls, beware of high rivers, climbing can be dangerous, be leery of deer-mouse droppings, etc.

We fear such a lesson, turned on its head, could arrive at park officials' doorstep in coming days: That an early- to mid-August Curry camper, denied the ability to make an informed decision about whether to lodge at the Village, becomes ill or dies.

The Union Democrat
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