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Worries over hantavirus taking a toll at Yosemite

September 3, 2012 |  8:38 am

Yosemite hantavirus

Concerns about the hantavirus are taking their toll at Yosemite National Park.

Officials announced last week that 10,000 people were at risk for contracting hantavirus after staying in Yosemite National Park this summer.

Although park spokesman Scott Gediman said there wasn't a noticeable dip in the 75,000 or so visitors expected during the busy Labor Day weekend, a spokeswoman for the concessionaire that handles lodging within the park says there was a 20% cancellation rate on a weekend that should be sold out.

"For us, we've had unprecedented cancellations," Delaware North Cos. Parks & Resorts spokeswoman Lisa Cesaro said. "We've never seen this for a Labor Day."

Most of the cancellations were in the roughly 500-unit Curry Village, Cesaro said. The Ahwahnee Hotel and Yosemite Lodge, the company's marquee facilities, were still sold out.

Paul Ollig, the park's deputy chief of interpretation, said as of Saturday afternoon, the number of concerned visitors was in the thousands. An emergency phone line opened Tuesday.

"We're getting calls from worldwide," Ollig said. "A lot of them from California, but we're getting calls from the U.K., we're getting calls from France, from China.... We haven't really seen much of a lull at all."

Park officials said they had sent letters and emails to about 3,100 people who reserved one of the 91 "signature tent cabins" in the park's popular Curry Village from June 10 to Aug. 24. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention alert — issued through its health advisory network, which reaches healthcare providers as well as health departments — said an estimated 10,000 people stayed in the tents during that time.

Some visitors said they are going to pay attention to possible symptoms in the coming weeks. Others said they think the park should be spreading the word more aggressively.

Camille Chu, 39, said she and her husband were not warned about hantavirus when they checked into one of the now-shuttered cabins Aug. 24. She also said she didn't receive an email notification until Wednesday night, after she called the park.

"People need to know now," Chu said. "You should always err on the side of caution and that's not what they did. I'm infuriated. I'm very upset."

Norbert Kubilus, 63, and his wife spent four days in another section of the village beginning June 10. Although they are out of the park's target group, Kubilus said he still would like to know more about what's going on.

He said he had some flu-like symptoms a few weeks after returning from the park. They passed, but Kubilus said had he known hantavirus was a concern he would have gone to his doctor "just to make sure it wasn't that."

Six confirmed cases of the rare, rodent-borne disease have been linked to the park, officials said. Four have been traced to the tent cabins; the remaining two are still under investigation, Gediman said Friday.

The letters warn recipients to seek immediate medical attention if they or anyone in their party start to show symptoms of the disease.

The park also set up an emergency phone line Tuesday that drew 900 calls its first day, Yosemite spokeswoman Kari Cobb said.

The final guests were moved from the cabins Tuesday, Gediman said. By Friday, all tents had been cleaned and retrofitted to repair gaps in the walls that might allow virus-carrying deer mice to get inside.

Officials are still waiting to see if the efforts are successful at keeping the mice out. If not, Gediman said, the cabins could be moved or closed permanently.

Hantavirus is a rare disease — 587 cases were diagnosed nationwide from 1993 to 2011, according to the CDC. Of those, one-third were fatal.

But the cases at Yosemite are perhaps even more rare. Park officials and public health authorities said they had not heard of more than one case of the disease in the same location within a year.


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Photo: National Park Service health specialist Glenn Dean inspects tent cabins for mice entry points at Curry Village at Yosemite National Park last week. Credit: Michael Macor / San Francisco Chronicle