Health & Medicine

Ghost town is ‘ticking time bomb’ for state park workers, hantavirus survivor’s dad warns

Citrus Heights resident Curtis Fry, whose son contracted hantavirus at Bodie State Historic Park, said the California Department of Parks and Recreation is putting employees at risk by failing to provide adequate training or housing at the popular Mono County ghost town.

“It’s just the Wild West out there,” Fry said. “This is the 21st century. They’re just letting these people risk their lives.”

His son Spencer was living and working at Bodie as a park aide in July when he came down with the rare and often-fatal lung infection. Spencer Fry spent 13 days in intensive care at Kaiser Permanente Roseville Medical Center. He permanently lost hearing in his left ear and cannot walk normally because of partial paralysis in his legs and feet, his father said.

An avid runner who had recently graduated from Sacramento State, Spencer declined to be interviewed for this report, saying he wanted to focus on his recovery.

Of his son, Curtis Fry said: “I’m sure Spencer is going to move forward, and he seems to be ready to cope and deal with the whole ordeal. My biggest concern for Spencer, more than the physical aspect, is how does this affect his life? Where does this put him in his career?”

Hantavirus is contracted when people breathe air contaminated by the droppings, saliva or urine of infected mice. When nesting materials, droppings or urine are stirred up, the virus disperses in the air and can live there for several days. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the virus can incubate in the human body for one to eight weeks.

Spencer was diagnosed six weeks after arriving at Bodie, a California gold-mining town preserved in a state of “arrested decay.”

State Parks, Cal/OSHA and public health officials are investigating how he might have contracted the disease.

In his role as a park aide, Spencer did everything from cleaning the park to helping provide guests with historical context as they walked the grounds.

He also did pest control, Curtis Fry said, donning gloves and masks to trap and dispose of mice in the cabin he leased from the state. Using the same gear and a bleach-water solution, he and other aides also had to clean up any droppings or nesting materials they encountered.

“I would ask OSHA, ‘Why are there no regular inspections of housing? Why do they allow the state to rent this housing?’ ” Fry said. “The park is managed by a policy called arrested decay. How can these cabins be safe when there are no improvements allowed to any of the buildings?

“This place is great for day visits but a ticking time bomb for workers who are required to live there,” he said.

Gloria Sandoval, deputy director of the California Department of Parks and Recreation, said she and other department leaders take this incident very seriously because they’re concerned about all their employees’ welfare. She said State Parks has a training protocol for employees but that she couldn’t share details of what happened at Bodie until the investigation is complete. Cal/OSHA has up to six months to report its conclusions.

“Employees do receive training when they become employed at Bodie and throughout their stay there, but any specifics on training, especially about Spencer, are still under investigation,” she said.

Fry said his son was the first employee to move into the cabin he occupied and that Spencer told Cal/OSHA investigators that he didn’t receive workplace safety training upon arrival. Rather, he said, it was Spencer who went to a supervisor to inquire about what he should do about the mice he heard scurrying around in his living quarters.

“Then they handed him some gloves and a mask and said, ‘Here, this is what you use to dispose of them,’ ” Fry said, adding that his son also was given traps for the rodents. “That’s not training. That’s not hazardous waste disposal training.”

It wasn’t until three weeks after Spencer started his job, Fry said, that the Bodie employees had a staff meeting where a ranger handed Spencer some pamphlets on heat exhaustion and gave a pamphlet on hantavirus to another new employee.

“It was their job to train everybody at that staff meeting on how to deal with hantavirus and heat exhaustion,” Fry said. “That was the extent of the training. Three weeks into the job, the person who is supposed to be trained is doing the training … I think that’s pretty eye-opening. That is the training for one of the four deadliest viruses in the world.”

Michael Puckett, a Fresno-based workplace safety consultant and a former enforcement inspector for Cal/OSHA, said the state housing is considered a quasi-workplace and that state law requires that employees be educated on any hazards present there and any sanitation requirements. Supervisors can verbally communicate training, but whether training is done orally or on paper, the employer should ascertain whether the training sunk in.

To understand how employers approach workplace safety training and ascertain workers’ competence, The Sacramento Bee interviewed executives at Sutter Health and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District about their safety programs. Debbie Sandberg, the environmental services director at Sutter Medical Center, Sacramento, outlined a number of measures her company takes, including one-on-one training on handling biohazards.

In a mockup training room, trainers or supervisors go over the different types of waste employees may encounter in the waste stream, how to tie bags, how to dispose of the waste, and what to do if there’s a spill, Sandberg said. Every employee is given a competency checklist, and they affirm understanding, and the company can show these documents to its accreditation committee, state regulators or any other surveyor, she said.

“They receive competencies to demonstrate back to the trainer and supervisor that they’re competent to perform those duties, so those include the steps of recognizing what biohazard waste is in the waste stream,” she said.

Sutter employees work with a more experienced employee on the unit for a while before going solo, and they receive annual refresher training, Sandberg said. Workers can also report any safety issues they observe, she said.

Patrick Durham, SMUD’s director of environmental services, said the utility has implemented a program that stresses a “be safe always” message to employees. The company recently launched a “safety for life” program, organizing two events for workers and their families where participants learned driving skills, CPR, first aid, water safety, bike safety and even fire extinguisher training.

“What we’re trying to do is get ahead of the curve (and saying), ‘If you encounter something that could have gone wrong, bring it to the table and let’s discuss it,’ ” Durham said.

SMUD also tells its line crews: Know your limitations. If help is needed, call for a specialized team.

Those programs are more in-depth and more complete than what was done at Bodie, Curtis Fry said, and that’s ironic since Spencer was employed by the same state government that cites and fines companies that fail to develop effective programs.

Although State Parks is subject to the same regulations, Fry said he has little faith the state will be upfront and honest about what happened. Spencer and other Bodie employees accepted jobs where they were paid $10 an hour, he said, and the least they deserved is a safe working environment.

He noted that the state has been covering Spencer’s medical bills through workers’ compensation, but he thinks Spencer should be compensated for the limitations he must now face in life. The Fry family conferred with an attorney but were told that a lot rides on the Cal/OSHA investigation because Spencer and other workers signed a rental agreement warning that they might be exposed to hantavirus in their historical housing.

“Isn’t it great what the state can get away with?” Fry said. “Spencer’s life is forever altered, and everyone else just gets to forget it and move on.”

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee

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