Hunt for hantavirus: Citrus Heights man recovering from rare disease as family, employer dispute cause

Bodie State Historic Park denies its living quarters exposed employees to infected mice droppings

This is an extended version of a story that ran August 3, 2017.

Five years after an outbreak of hantavirus in Yosemite National Park, California’s park system is now in the hot seat as a Sacramento family claims unsanitary living conditions infected their son with the rare disease.

Spencer Fry, 22, is recovering at home in Citrus Heights after spending nearly two weeks in the hospital as a result of contracting hantavirus while working as a seasonal park aide at Bodie State Historic Park near Mono Lake.

Hantavirus is a rare disease contracted by inhaling or ingesting infected deer mouse droppings, or urine that becomes airborne. Activities that are likely to stir up dust, like sweeping, may increase the chances of contracting the disease, which is most common in rural residences.

Approximately 10 percent of tested mice in the Eastern Sierras show signs of the rare disease, says Dr. Rick Johnson of the Mono County Health Department.

“You can see that the Eastern Sierras, which essentially involves Inyo County and Mono County, [have] more cases that anywhere else in California,” Johnson said. “When we trap mice we do find a significant proportion that are infected with the virus and it’s really unclear why that exists more in Mono County and Inyo County than anywhere else.”

As of January this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded 697 cases nationally since 1993, when hantavirus was first identified. Of those, 36 percent have been fatal. In California, 63 cases have been detected. Only New Mexico (109 cases), Colorado (104 cases) and Arizona (77 cases) have seen more.

According to his father, Fry first showed symptoms when his family visited him over the Fourth of July. While his mother, Haven Fry, was immediately suspicious that hantavirus was to blame for his constant headaches, Spencer Fry was only taken to urgent care the morning of July 8, when he woke with a 104-degree fever. There he was told that he likely had the flu. When his fever didn’t break next day, his family insisted he return to Sacramento with them and he was taken to Kaiser Permanente in Roseville. His lungs filled with fluid and he was admitted to the intensive care unit for 12 days, where he was intubated and placed in a medical coma. He remained in critical condition for 10 days, his father says.

“I haven’t been through anything quite like that,” said Curtis Fry, Spencer’s dad. “My wife is a cancer survivor and that scares the hell out of you, but it certainly isn’t the pure fright of watching somebody sitting right there at death’s door.”

Meanwhile, Bodie park officials launched an investigation into the exposure, which remains open. Johnson inspected the living quarters and all areas that Fry would have frequented and said he found no evidence of hantavirus.

That’s not unusual.

“Most of the time when we do an investigation we do not find specifically a sight that can be clearly implicated as the cause of the exposure,” Johnson said.

Even after the family raised concerns that the cabin had been cleaned after Fry fell ill, possibly destroying evidence of the virus, Johnson claims that the reports he received didn’t indicate any nesting material or other likely sources were found.

Now home with his family, Fry has lost hearing in his left ear and is unable to walk without a walker, side effects that his family fears may be permanent.

Bodie officials insist that the park is safe for visitors, but Curtis Fry believes that more should be done to protect park employees. He claims that they were not adequately trained on preventing hantavirus and that the employee cabins are unsanitary.

“The housing has mice running all through it. The employees have to set traps and dispose of dead mice instead of having trained people do it,” Curtis said. “These kids don’t have to live in houses built in the 1800s. They don’t have to live the life that the people of Bodie lived hundreds of years ago.”

According to the Sacramento County Department of Health and Human Services, Sacramento County has not seen a case of hantavirus since 2012, the same year that 10 people contacted hantavirus after staying in Yosemite’s Curry Village. Three of those cases were fatal.