Health & Fitness

He caught a rare, crippling virus at a California state park. His dad fears a cover-up

Spencer Fry had just gotten a degree in anthropology last year from Sacramento State and was happy to start a summer job as a park aide at Bodie State Historic Park, a gold-mining ghost town preserved in a state of arrested decay.
Spencer Fry had just gotten a degree in anthropology last year from Sacramento State and was happy to start a summer job as a park aide at Bodie State Historic Park, a gold-mining ghost town preserved in a state of arrested decay. Courtesy of the Fry-Todoroff family

Citrus Heights resident Curtis Fry wants answers. After eight months of waiting, he doesn’t understand why Cal/OSHA can’t provide them.

Fry’s 22-year-old son, Spencer Fry, contracted the deadly hantavirus in July 2017 while working at Bodie State Historic Park and living in state-provided housing. An avid runner and hiker, Spencer suffered permanent hearing loss in his left ear and partial leg paralysis as a result.

Curtis Fry said he wants state investigators to report how Spencer was exposed and hold State Parks accountable, but he fears investigators will water down criticism because Spencer submitted a form saying he intended to sue. If Spencer hadn't submitted the form by the state deadline, Fry said, he would have lost his right to litigate.

“The investigation has just languished,” Curtis Fry said. “It’s frustrating that they haven’t come to a conclusion. They’ve had plenty of time to investigate what’s going on or what the conditions were.”

Cal/OSHA spokesman Lucas Brown told The Bee last August that investigations typically take up to six months. Earlier this week, he said Cal/OSHA is still actively investigating the case.

“Cal/OSHA can take longer than six months to complete an investigation depending on identification of an ongoing exposure to a hazard, the identification of a continuous violation after the investigation was launched, or if Cal/OSHA is working with an employer to correct a hazard,” Brown said.

Hantavirus case

State officials are investigating whether Spencer Fry contracted hantavirus at Bodie State Historic Park.
Hantavirus map and California reported cases of human hantavirus
Source: California Department of Public Health
The Sacramento Bee

Cal/OSHA, the California Department of Public Health and Mono County’s public health officer have been working with State Parks to reduce the risk at Bodie, an abandoned mining town that is maintained in a state of arrested decay, said spokeswoman Adeline Yee. She said the department already has adopted many recommendations.

“State Parks has contracted with California Department of Public Health…to provide hantavirus exposure control training to Bodie’s residents and staff,” Yee said, “and conduct inspections to evaluate State Parks’ rodent exclusion efforts.”

Public Health officials recommended steps to improve pest control and abatement, maintain sanitary conditions, properly clean surfaces and educate employees.

While he said he is pleased that the department is taking steps to improve safety, Curtis Fry is not satisfied with the handling of his son's case.

“I hope that they make some changes and make the place safer,” Fry said. “That’s one of the major concerns on my part, but I also want them to finalize this thing and show what responsibility the state has had in Spencer’s contraction of the virus.”

Industrial safety consultant Michael Puckett, president of Fresno’s Central California EHS, said he worked in enforcement for Cal/OSHA for about seven years. He said he was surprised to learn that the Cal/OSHA hantavirus investigation had extended past six months. The Bee requested Cal/OSHA statistics on the length of its past investigations and found that, in fiscal year 2017, cases involving government agencies were three times more likely to take more than six months as compared with those involving nongovernmental agencies. In fiscal 2016, cases involving government agencies were almost twice as likely to extend past six months.

However, the overall number of cases to exceed six months is a tiny fraction of the department’s caseload. Cal/OSHA launched 8,026 investigations in fiscal 2017, for instance, and 464 of those involved government agencies. Of the 38 cases that took longer than six months, six involved government agencies.

Curtis Fry said his family has sought updates, as Spencer has been faced with legal decisions that will affect the rest of his life. They’d like to know findings on the inspection of housing provided by the state, on employee training or lack thereof, on the results of inspections conducted after Spencer contracted hantavirus.

The state has covered Spencer’s medical costs, Fry said, and the family has been told that, in such cases, the state typically covers related medical costs for life. But Spencer’s injuries also could limit his earning potential in future, Fry said .

“They may come to some sort of agreement that Spencer is fine with and happy with,” Fry said. “Spencer is not looking for so much money that he won’t have to work. That’s not who he is. He’s a worker.”

Spencer declined to be interviewed, saying he would rather focus on rehabilitation and a new job assisting an archeologist at Grass Valley’s Empire Mine State Historic Park. That’s who Spencer is, said Fry, adding that this is not the first time his son has persevered through adversity.

“Our son is gay, and he had a rough time coming through high school, a lot of consequences of coming out,” Fry said. “This is just another case of adversity for him. He refuses to consider it a handicap. He’s going to keep pushing forward and do everything he can regardless.”

For every 100 people who have contracted hantavirus, 38 have died, according to CDC statistics. People most commonly are exposed to hantavirus when they improperly handle an infected mouse or clean up its droppings or excretions. Once disturbed, the virus can go airborne.

Public health officials have an extensive toolkit on how to reduce exposure. A few of those steps include avoiding the use of brooms, vacuums or other dust-generating cleaning methods. Rather, they say, people should thoroughly wet the source of potential infection with a disinfectant and use gloves and paper towels to remove it. Hantavirus can incubate in the human body for one to eight weeks before symptoms manifest.

Curtis and Haven Fry were visiting their son July 4-8 at Bodie when Spencer began to show symptoms of the virus: headaches, fatigue, fever, muscle aches and chills. Haven Fry had read of another hantavirus case at the park years earlier, Fry said, and she wanted her son to return to the Sacramento area to be checked out.

Spencer thought it was an infection he could beat, though, and pleaded for one more day to recover, but the next day he woke up with a fever upward of 104 degrees. A co-worker drove him to see an emergency-room doctor, who told Spencer that he likely had the flu.

Spencer returned to the living quarters that he and other Bodie employees rented from the state. As he lay in his room, Curtis Fry said, he could hear people cleaning the living spaces outside his room.

Mono County health officer Rick Johnson said he came to inspect the quarters after this cleaning and that he interviewed all workers and asked what they had found. No one pointed to a nest or other materials where the virus might have been disturbed, Johnson said, but he did recommend that park officials replace the carpet in the living quarters with flooring that could more easily be cleaned.

Fry said that Spencer had frequently exercised on that carpet and that his son, as the first employee to report for summer work at Bodie, didn’t receive training on workplace hazards until three weeks after he arrived.

Since Spencer’s illness, Fry said, a prior conversation with his son now stands out as a harbinger of potential problems: Before his parent’s July 4 trip, Spencer returned home for a visit and recounted how he had heard mice in his cabin and found their droppings there. When he asked about it, he was provided with gloves, paper towels, mouse traps and a disinfectant, and he was told to wet down any dead mice or droppings with the disinfectant before disposing of them.

No one mentioned hantavirus as part of that instruction, Fry said, and when training finally occurred, Spencer was handed a pamphlet on heat exhaustion and another employee was given a pamphlet on hantavirus. The two new hires used the pamphlets to train everyone at the meeting.

In this Aug. 30, 2012, video interview, Dr. Charles Chiu, who directs the University of California, San Francisco-Abbott Viral Diagnostics and Discovery Center, discusses hantavirus, a potentially fatal virus transmitted by rodents such as deer mi

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

  Comments