A Citrus Heights father questions the integrity of an inspection for hantavirus at Bodie State Historic Park because, as his son Spencer lay in his room trying to recover from a fever ultimately found to be caused by the deadly hantavirus, his coworkers thoroughly scrubbed other rooms in his living quarters.
That July 7 cleaning, Curtis Fry said, cleared out evidence that could have been helpful a few days later when the Mono County health officer, Dr. Rick Johnson, looked for areas where rodents frequently trafficked or congregated. Deer mice carry hantavirus, a rare disease that has killed about 35 percent of the roughly 700 Americans who have contracted it. People contract hantavirus when the droppings, urine, saliva or nesting matter of an infected mouse are disturbed, and they breathe in the contaminated air.
Spencer Fry, a 22-year-old outdoorsman and anthropology major, had accepted a job as a seasonal worker at the park. The morning of July 7, Fry woke up a fever that topped 104 degrees, his father said.
“On the day that he (Spencer) first came up with the fever and was laying in his room, they sent in the employees and they scrubbed that house from top to bottom and destroyed every bit of evidence,” Curtis Fry said. “I’m not saying that was their intention. I’m sure they were probably worried about future infections.”
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A co-worker took him to the emergency room in Mono County, Curtis Fry said, and the doctor there told his son had the flu. He sent him back to the park, advising rest and fluids.
Haven Fry, Spencer’s mother, wanted to take her son to doctors in the Sacramento region that night, Curtis Fry said, but her son pleaded with her to give him the night to see if there was a turnaround. The next day, with Fry delirious and still suffering a fever of 104-plus, a park employee drove him in his car to meet his family, who rushed him to Kaiser Roseville.
Spencer Fry spent 13 days in the intensive care unit at Kaiser Permanente’s Roseville Medical Center but was released Friday, his father said, adding that his son has lost hearing in one ear, had to be put on medication to reduce the risk of a blood clot, and still has not regained completely normal liver function.
Fry said he didn’t understand why State Parks officials wouldn’t relocate employees when they learned of his son’s illness rather than risk losing evidence that could help prevent future problems.
Gloria Sandoval, deputy director of the California Department of Parks and Recreation, said Friday that, once the state’s investigation is complete, she would be able to answer whether employees decided on their own to clean up their living quarters or whether managers or rangers instructed them to do so.
She stressed that State Parks is cooperating with the ongoing investigation by the California Department of Public Health and Mono County. Johnson said Friday that he knew the living quarters had been cleaned before his inspection and that the knowledge colored his perception and questions.
“When I talked with them (the staff), they did not find any nesting materials at all on the premises, and there was not much in the way of droppings,” Johnson said. “They cleaned it, certainly to be ultra-cautious, because they were concerned for their own well-being at that point. They cleaned their own rooms and the common areas.”
Johnson said it is impossible to identify which mouse might have caused the illness or to be certain that a particular nest is the cause. Hantavirus typically lives in the environment for two to three days at normal room temperatures, but UV sunlight will kill it.
That’s why Johnson and other health experts advise airing out closed spaces before going into them and dousing mice droppings in a solution of bleach and water before cleaning them. When cleaning spaces, they say, wear latex gloves, a mask and eye covering. Set traps to catch mice, and wear gloves and a mask when disposing of them.
During the Bodie park inspection, Johnson asked staff to show him all the spaces that Spencer Fry inhabited during his employment. Johnson said Thursday that he deemed the living quarters safe for employees to continue to inhabit, saying they had no more droppings than at his home. Responding to further questions Friday, he said that he had recommended that State Parks officials remove the carpeting from the employee living quarters.
“My recommendation was that the carpet be … replaced with flooring such as tile or wood that could easily be wet and cleaned,” he said. “Carpet obviously absorbs any wetting, and so that’s more difficult. If you’re concerned about saliva, urine and droppings, you’d much rather have a hard surface that is not porous that can be cleaned, wet and wiped.”
Curtis Fry said his son regularly works out and that he spent a lot of time exercising on the floor. Since hantavirus is a more common health risk in the Eastern Sierra than elsewhere in California, he said, State Parks should have someone regularly inspect employee housing at Bodie with an eye toward minimizing transmission of the disease.
“My first thing is: Is that place really safe, and are they doing everything they can to really keep the employees up there safe?” Curtis Fry said. “I met them all, and they’re a great group of people … Are they really doing what needs to be done to protect those people? If somebody else comes down with it, it’s going to be horrible for that person.”
Jim Wilson, the director of the Nevada Center for Infectious Disease Forecasting, said an experienced health inspector should know the right questions to ask staff to get the information needed to make a decision on whether there was an infestation in the residence.
Johnson has seen about one case of hantavirus a year since he took over as Mono County’s health officer in 2002. Sandoval said the health of State Parks employees, volunteers and visitors are a priority.