Yosemite phones flooded by global callers asking about hantavirus

The national park has fielded calls from all over globe from people who have stayed at tent cabins deemed the source of rodent-borne illness

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 September, 2012, 5:16am


The calls from concerned tourists have been coming in from as far away as China. Ever since an emergency line was set up on Tuesday at the Yosemite National Park after a recent outbreak of hantavirus, thousands of people around the world have contacted the Californian park.

Responding to questions about the rodent-borne disease, the half a dozen rangers manning the phones rattle off information. Calendars, news articles and park maps cover their tables.

"We're getting calls from worldwide," Paul Ollig, the park's deputy chief of interpretation, said. "A lot of them from California, but we're getting calls from the UK, 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 blamed the cases on a design flaw in the signature tent cabins, which are now closed indefinitely as an investigation continues.

Yosemite officials have sent letters or e-mails to about 3,100 people who reserved one of the signature tent cabins between June 10 and August 24. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said 10,000 people stayed in the cabins during that time and risked contracting the disease.

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 Labour Day weekend, a spokeswoman for the concessionaire that handles lodging within the park says there was a 20 per cent 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.

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.

Gediman and his counterpart, park spokeswoman Kari Cobb, said they had fielded about 600 calls from the media.

Yosemite is no stranger to high-profile stories, they said. But the difference with hantavirus is that there is no end in sight.

"We don't know how many more people are out there who may have contracted hantavirus or who think they may have contracted hantavirus," Cobb said.

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 August 23 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.

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."