A vibrant 90-year-old Walnut Grove farmer is Sacramento County's first person to die from West Nile virus, public health officials announced Friday.
Charles Frederick McDowell died Wednesday at Mercy General Hospital. He had fallen ill last Friday and quickly succumbed to complications from the mosquito-borne disease, his family said.
An elderly Fresno County woman also has died of West Nile virus, according to state health officials, bringing the total number of deaths statewide to eight.
"This is a day we really have been dreading," said Sacramento County Health Officer Dr. Glennah Trochet, appearing shaken.
Just since Tuesday, she reported, the Sacramento County caseload has jumped from 70 to 83. Sacramento County remains the epicenter of the virus in California, Trochet said, where 370 cases have been reported so far in 2005.
"I am sorry to say it is very likely the numbers will rise and we will see additional fatalities," she said.
Seven members of the extended McDowell family joined Trochet in a crowded conference room in the county health department Friday morning to announce the news, and to put a face on the potentially deadly impact of the disease.
The family decided to tell its story to express support for aerial spraying, alert complacent residents to take precautions against mosquito bites, and to urge health officials to quicken the pace of West Nile testing.
"We're angry, that's why we're here," said his daughter Judy McDowell, citing continued opposition to aerial pesticides in residential areas. "This could happen to their family members."
Judy McDowell's daughter, Teresa Lim, read a statement. "We lost our grandfather to the West Nile virus," she said. "He was a farmer for 59 years in Sacramento County and worked with pesticides most of his life ... He would be the first person to say let the spraying continue."
Lim bemoaned the fact that the Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District has not conducted aerial pesticide treatments in the Delta region.
District manager David Brown, who did not attend the news conference, said later that the district has done plenty of mosquito treatments in the Delta. He said it has sprayed to kill mosquito larvae and conducted early morning fogging from trucks to kill adult mosquitoes.
"We have not been successful doing nighttime adulticiding," Brown said. "It's difficult because of the winds, for the same reason we have in Elk Grove." Aerial treatments in Elk Grove were not completed this week because of high winds.
Trochet said officials will not know until later this season whether spraying has reduced the human toll of West Nile virus, as those now falling ill were likely infected before it began.
"This is by far the worst year for West Nile virus," she said. "If there ever is a time to spray, it is this year."
McDowell family members also urged people to use products containing DEET to protect themselves against mosquito bites.
Accustomed to mosquitoes, Charles McDowell was not in the habit of using repellent before heading outside, his family said.
"Please don't make the mistake that we did," Lim said. "Don't take chances because it could be someone you love and lose because you did not take the warnings seriously."
Family members described McDowell as a beloved and respected member of the Delta community, whom many people called "Grandpa."
McDowell was the patriarch of an 800-acre family operation that produces pears, corn, alfalfa, safflower and wheat. He was known to drive around the ranch in his Chevrolet S-10 truck every day to inspect the operation, said his son, Edward McDowell.
Originally from Penn Grove, Charles McDowell remained active until his death. He played bridge and belonged to the Masonic Lodge, logging over 50 years as a member. More than anything, his family stressed, he still lived independently, was healthy and should have lived another five or 10 years.
"We have heard that, he was 90. He was 90," said Lim. "Well, he was 90 with no need of assistance. He fixed his own meals. He lived alone. He drove. It wasn't his time."
"My grandpa started golfing at 80," chimed in granddaughter Michelle Copeland, 27.
McDowell became sick Friday, Aug. 12, with flulike symptoms, family members said. He was taken to Mercy General Hospital, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia.
Lim said the family insisted he be tested for West Nile virus, which took place the following Tuesday. The family learned late Friday, Aug. 19, that he was infected with West Nile, after he had endured several invasive tests to rule out other problems.
"Why did we have to wait so long for the results?" Lim asked. "The system needs to be changed."
Trochet said blood samples are sent out in batches to be tested twice a week, which creates delays. While every available resource has been allocated to the West Nile epidemic, she said, a lack of funding has meant no added staff at testing labs.
"The problem with government is it moves slowly," she said. "The season for West Nile virus is now and September. I would ask the state to make funds available for local jurisdictions to respond more quickly to this issue."
In Fresno County, officials said a Clovis woman died three weeks ago, but tests were needed to confirm that she died from the virus.
McDowell's survivors include a brother, Charles G. McDowell. He had five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife, Elaine.
A memorial service will be conducted today at 2 p.m. in South East Lawn Mortuary. Memorials can be sent to F.A.M. Building Fund, c/o Richard Brewer, Franklin Lodge, P.O. Box 6868, Hood, 95639-0068.
At a news conference Friday, Dr. Glennah Trochet, health officer for Sacramento County, announced the county's first death from West Nile virus. Charles McDowell of Walnut Grove is the victim. Following are audio excerpts:
Source: sacbee.com audio
Ground spraying to begin in Roseville
The Placer Mosquito Abatement District plans ground spraying by truck in south Roseville on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Weather permitting, the spraying will occur from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m.
The areas to be sprayed are:
Roseville and south Placer County residents wishing to be placed on Placer Mosquito Abatement District's "No Spray" list should notify the district, preferably by e-mail at email@example.com, or by calling the district beginning Monday at (916) 435-2140, and provide their name, telephone number and property address.
Magpie-count aid asked
Holly Ernest, a wildlife veterinarian at the University of California, Davis, is coordinating a volunteer network to count magpies to help learn how badly West Nile virus is affecting their numbers. Ernest is asking people who walk daily or commute by bicycle to look for and count magpies.
To participate, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Where to get information
To report a dead bird, call (877) 968-2473
Butte County: Residents can go to www.buttecountypublichealth.org or call (800) 339-2941.
Anyone with concerns about the health effects of spraying can call the California Poison Control number at (800) 876-4766.
To reduce the risk of catching West Nile virus, the Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District recommends:
Use an effective mosquito repellent containing ingredients such as DEET, Picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus.
Repair tears in door and window screens.
Drain standing water.
Wear long pants and long sleeves outdoors when practical.
Avoid being outside at dawn and dusk, when mosquitoes are most active.
About the writer:
- The Bee's Dorsey Griffith can be reached at (916) 321-1089 or email@example.com. Bee science writer Edie Lau contributed to this report.