Placer County has seen its first human fatality from West Nile virus this season, a reminder, officials said, of the very real danger posed by the mosquito-borne disease.
Howard Stoltz, a prominent community volunteer, died Saturday after being hospitalized for 10 days with encephalitis, a severe neuroinvasive condition brought on by the virus.
At 74, Stoltz fit the profile of those most likely to succumb to the disease, which tends to strike down older people. The four other fatalities in California this year were of a similar age: an 88-year-old woman in Kern County; an 86-year-old woman in Merced County; an 86-year-old man in Sacramento County; and a 76-year-old woman who died in Fresno County.
In Texas, the epicenter of the West Nile virus epidemic in the United States this year, the same pattern holds, with the elderly making up the bulk of fatalities.
California has had a relatively mild season this year compared with the peak in 2004, when 779 cases of West Nile virus were detected in the state. So far this season, 75 cases have been confirmed in California.
But the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Wednesday that, nationwide, the country seems to be on track for its worst West Nile year ever, with Texas producing the most alarming number of outbreaks.
Meanwhile, in the Sacramento region, high-profile aerial spraying has given way to less invasive ground treatments, and public mosquito districts are focusing on the prevention measures that people have heard about all summer.
The region is on the cusp of the season's singularly most aggressive period of West Nile virus onset late September and October mosquito district officials warn.
Consider the case of Howard Stoltz, a community volunteer many times over, whose daughter, Janet Stoltz, points to her father's death as a signal to people to continue to guard against mosquito bites wherever they go.
"His story puts a face to that 1 percent the 1 percent of cases where West Nile virus advances into encephalitis or meningitis," his daughter said.
"His message would be, 'Do take all the precautions necessary, especially with young children and the elderly, because they are the most vulnerable,' " she said.
The loss of Stoltz is being felt in many corridors of the public safety sector where he dedicated himself to volunteering after retirement: at the Foothill K-9 Association; the Placer County Sheriff's Department; the National Night Out Movement against crime; CPR instructional units; and more.
No one knows where he contracted the disease. But many people have bemoaned the loss of a man with a "huge heart" in dozens of tributes on Foothill K-9's Facebook page.
Janet Stoltz said her father had a weak spot for animals "He would take in any animal who knocked on his door" ending up with a dog named Molly, a cat named Jake and a peacock he called Peewee.
When a neighbor left a home vacant, Stoltz also adopted Princess, a then-homeless cat.
As a volunteer, Stoltz would take it upon himself to inspect abandoned properties to check for standing water and neglected pools that bred mosquitoes.
"I call this a tragedy of the hidden cost of foreclosures," said his daughter. "He saw what happened when people don't maintain swimming pools, and he wanted to educate people that if you have a neighbor whose home foreclosed, you need to be aware of the risk."
Even in death, Stoltz manages to give back to the community he dedicated himself to upon retiring as an executive at Pacific Bell: Packets of insect repellent will be distributed at his memorial Friday.
Insect repellent is a pillar of prevention, but so too are public safety warnings to stay indoors at dawn and dusk, keep doors and windows closed to keep out mosquitoes and drain standing water from property, including swimming pools that are no longer maintained.
Only one in five people infected by a mosquito with West Nile virus will actually become ill, said the CDC. The hardiest recover in just days.
Symptoms to monitor are headaches, fever and body aches. The 1 percent who become seriously ill may develop neck stiffness, disorientation, coma and paralysis.
Of Stoltz's death, Dr. Mark Starr, director of community health for Placer County, said, "Obviously, it's very unfortunate news to have had a fatality in this county with this disease." But he expressed hope that the community will see Stoltz as a "very human reminder to take prevention strategies seriously."
Editor's note: This story was changed Sept. 13 to correct the spelling of Stoltz.