By CALVIN PYNN
Almost a week after a suspected case of hantavirus claimed the lives of a mother and daughter in Snowville, the exact cause has yet to be determined pending testing and investigation from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
The mother, Julie Simpkins, and daughter, Ginger, died last Friday, April 25, two weeks after cleaning out a trailer that had been sitting vacant on the family’s property. The rest of the Simpkins family, including the father and two younger children, as well as Ginger’s boyfriend, were hospitalized with the illness as well.
Following their deaths, the rest of the family was released from the hospital following treatment, and their current condition is unknown. Although the illness is still being investigated with a positive suspicion for hantavirus, which is transmitted through rodent excrement, Pulaski County Emergency Services felt it was necessary to inform the public on how to prevent such incident from occurring in the future.
Pulaski County Emergency Services Coordinator Josh Tolbert spoke before the Board of Supervisors at their Tuesday night meeting, giving a presentation on the precautions that can be taken to ward off this type of illness in the future. According to Tolbert, last weekend’s incident was not a common occurrence.
“The hantavirus is something very rare to Virginia,” said Tolbert. “If this ends up being the cause of the illnesses and deaths in Snowville, it would be extremely rare to have this effect simultaneously with the number of people that it did.”
According to Tolbert, environments similar to the Simpkins’ trailer can breed hantavirus and other similar pathogens. However, steps can be taken to rid the area of such viruses.
“If you encounter a situation like this, it’s wise to get rid of the problem,” said Tolbert. “Get rid of the mice before you do any major cleaning, and wait at least one week after the last appearance of any active rodent infestation.”
Tolbert said in his presentation that the virus that lives in rodent’s feces and urine cannot live very long, usually dying within about a week. He added that sunlight, warmth, and cold are also contributing factors.
Anyone cleaning out an area contaminated with mice feces should ventilate it by opening doors and windows, and letting the space air out for 30 minutes before cleaning.
He also recommended using safety equipment such as rubber and latex gloves, and masks with a hepafilter. According to Tolbert, the virus can attach itself to the dust in the air where the feces have been sitting, and most of that dusts can still make its way through generic masks designed to keep it out.
“This virus could most likely enter the lungs through the dust,” said Tolbert. “It’s best to consider all dust as bad dust. You don’t want it in your lungs.”
Tolbert recommended cleaning out those areas using eye protection, as well as engineered cleaning techniques, such as vacuuming. He also advised spraying the area with a mix of bleach and water, letting it soak for five minutes, gathering up the feces with paper towels and wiping the area down, then disposing of those towels in a double sealed bag.
Any rodents left should be trapped, and any area they might have occupied should be disinfected as well.
Any clothes or other types of fabric that came in contact with with the excrement should be washed in hot water. According to Tolbert, a wash and dry cycle should be enough to kill the virus.
When asked what kind of rodents could have transmitted the illness, Tolbert identified deer mice as the most likely carriers of the virus, as they typically live outside and move indoors to find heat. Being bitten by one of those rodents could cause an infection by the virus as well.
He added that most people that have been infected with the hantavirus have had a great deal of exposure to a heavy concentration of mice. The initial symptoms for hantavirus are fever, vomiting, which eventually develops into a more severe case of the flu.
County Administrator Pete Huber commented that the material disposed of by the family were taken to the Fairlawn drop site and closed off. The dumpsters have been taken to a sequestered area where they cannot be reached by the public.
According to Tolbert, the victims probably could’ve been treated if the illness was caught earlier, but as the cases vary, there’s no exact guarantee.
“The earlier the treatment, the better,” said Tolbert. “It varies from year to year. Some years it’s been as high as a 50 percent mortality rate. It’s so rare, that there’s not really a treatment.”
Tolbert said the Center for Disease Control and Prevention expects to have a confirmation on the illness later this this week. In the meantime, his advice on avoiding hantavirus and similar illnesses will be posted on the county’s website, www.pulaskicounty.org.