Yosemite rangers in triage mode after hantavirus outbreak
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — The phones in the administrative building here are constantly ringing. Half a dozen rangers answer the calls:
“You were here just this last weekend?”
“Do you remember the area the cabin was in?”
“I understand your fear. I would have the same level of anxiety.”
Responding to questions about a recent outbreak of hantavirus linked to the park, the rangers rattle off information about the rodent-borne disease. Calendars, news articles and park maps cover their tables. In front of each phone sits a notepad where rangers tally the number of calls received.
Paul Ollig, the park’s deputy chief of interpretation, said that as of Saturday afternoon, the number was in the thousands. The 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.”
Public health authorities have traced six hantavirus cases to Yosemite, including two fatalities. Of the confirmed cases, five have been connected to the 91 “signature tent cabins” in Curry Village, one of the park’s most popular campgrounds. The origin of the final reported case is still unclear.
The park has attributed the cases to a design flaw in the signature tent cabins, which are now closed indefinitely as an investigation into the outbreak continues.
Yosemite officials have sent letters or emails to about 3,100 people who reserved one of the signature tent cabins between June 10 and Aug. 24. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 10,000 people stayed in the cabins during that time and were at risk for contracting the disease.
And Yosemite is already feeling the effects. 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.
Officials are also concerned about the effect hantavirus could have on future reservations, especially at Curry Village. Guests can book Yosemite lodging 366 days in advance, but Cesaro said they’ve already noticed a decrease in requests for Curry Village.
“It will definitely have an impact,” she said. “But I think it’s too new to know what that is.”
Gediman and his counterpart, park spokeswoman Kari Cobb, said the hantavirus outbreak has been one of the bigger incidents they’ve handled in years. They’ve fielded about 600 calls from the media, including from foreign outlets like Al Jazeera.
Yosemite is no stranger to high-profile stories, they said. But the difference with hantavirus — unlike the deaths of three people swept over Vernal Fall last summer or the young boys carried down the Merced River the day before the hantavirus news broke — is that there is no end in sight.
“With Vernal Fall, you put the news out there and the stories are there, but there’s an end to it,” Cobb said. “With hantavirus, we don’t know where the end is going to be. We don’t know how many more people are out there who may have contracted hantavirus or who think they may have contracted hantavirus. We don’t know.”
Terri Power worries her 11-year-old nephew could be one of those people.
Power, a California native who moved to Bristol, England, a decade ago, has been to Camp Curry often. When she and her partner decided to visit the States this summer with their nephew, the park was on their list.
They had heard about hantavirus before their trip, but Power’s grandmother called the park and was reassured precautions had been taken.
But now, Power says her nephew has flu-like symptoms — which can be the initial indicators of hantavirus. His doctor is monitoring him in case he takes a turn for the worse.
Power said they weren’t told about hantavirus upon checking in Aug. 23 and haven’t been contacted by the park since. Although they didn’t stay in the signature tent cabins, she said she’d still like first-hand information.
“I know they don’t want to start a panic,” she said. “But I’ve got an 11-year-old nephew I’m really worried about.”
Power said she would still return to Yosemite but would find another place to stay.
“I think the Curry Village days are over,” she said.
But others kept their plans to visit Yosemite this week, both at Curry Village and beyond. The lobby of the Yosemite Lodge had a steady trickle of guests waiting to check in Friday evening.
One man standing in line eyed a flier sitting on the front desk. “HANTAVIRUS CAUTION,” it read.