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When Donations Could Be Deadly, Hantavirus in Our Community

Safety is a priority at the Community Closet. For the safety of our employees, we cannot accept donations that may harm them, like items exposed to mice which may carry the deadly hantavirus. We are also focused on the safety of our community and committed to getting the word out about hazards found in our community, like sharing information and giving out magnets about product recalls.

Right now, we are concerned about the approaching hantavirus season; more moisture leads to more mice which increases hantavirus risk - and there are indications that this may be a particularly bad year. While the variables that determine who contracts this virus is an emerging science; because hantavirus can be fatal it is never worth the risk. This is why Community Closet stores cannot accept any donation with any evidence of rodent activity or exposure. Most people who make donations underestimate how deadly or prevalent the virus is and don’t realize that cases are usually rural and occur when people open and clean out mice-infested sheds, barns, outbuildings, and garages that have been closed during the winter. In other words: here and now.

Hantavirus as deadly is not hyperbole; it has killed at least two people from Park County since 2011 and we’d like to take a moment to remember Hillary Johnson and Rhea Lynn Baxter, two fine women we lost far too young due to hantavirus. And the virus is still active in our community.

Not long ago, Julie Anderson, director of the Park County Health Department, had flu-like symptoms which included shortness of breath, fever, chills, and extreme fatigue. After several days and three clinic visits, her symptoms increased to severe headache, nausea, dizziness increased shortness of breath and inability to focus. On the fourth day Anderson says, “I woke in the night knowing that if I didn’t get to the hospital I was going to die from respiratory failure – I literally couldn’t breathe and knew if I didn’t get to the ER I would not survive.” She drove herself and her daughter to the hospital and went into respiratory failure in the parking lot.

After being transported to a hospital in Billings where she spent three weeks, she was put into a medically induced coma and then spent time in intensive care followed by physical therapy to address extensive weight loss and muscle atrophy. Anderson needed a wheelchair for several more weeks after going home and worked up to a walker but it was months before she felt back to normal and was able to take longer walks. She still experiences memory loss and her metabolism changed. Having a near death experience with hantavirus Anderson says, “made me look at life differently. I feel blessed to have another chance and enjoy each day we are given.”

People contract hantavirus when virus particles are inhaled from infected rodent bodily fluids, often from deer mice. The virus has a tendency to affect the heart, lungs and kidneys and reduces the function of these organs. The virus also enters the bloodstream where it continues to spread, replicate and cause further organ damage. In its early stages, hantavirus infection is difficult to distinguish from influenza, pneumonia or other viral conditions so it is often misidentified or unidentified. Hantavirus was categorized in 1993 in the US after an outbreak in New Mexico, but Navaho elders and oral traditions have identified similar outbreaks associated with mouse exposure going back decades. Tissue sample examination has identified a hantavirus victim from Utah in the 1950’s.

Of the 700 cases identified nationally there has been a 35% fatality rate with 98% of all reported cases in the US West of the Mississippi. Montana has had 43 cases documented, 10 of them resulting in death, and Park County alone has accounted for 20% of our state’s total.

As a relatively recently identified virus with emerging - and likely underreported - data we can look at trends and statistics but much is unknown about hantavirus. Not all mice have the hantavirus antibodies, and only some of these mice actually shed the virus in their urine, and only a handful of people (with healthy immune systems) contact the disease. Explanations for the variables are not yet known.

Annual cycles have been identified, going from far back in Navaho lore to the past 25 years since the virus has been tracked by the medical community. You can see from the CDC graph that 2018 was a quiet year for hantavirus with only 3 reported cases in the entire US, none in Montana, and for the first time since 1993, there were no new cases in New Mexico. Many have concerns that 2019 may be a bad hantavirus year due to moisture and the cyclical nature of the virus - and New Mexico recently reported their first case of the year.

When cleaning anywhere mice may have been (and people have been infected in areas with no mouse evidence), the following precautions are recommended:

  • Wet down areas before cleaning to prevent contaminated dust from becoming airborne. Never sweep or vacuum in areas that could be contaminated.

  • Disinfect potentially contaminated areas with a solution of bleach and water.

  • Wear gloves and a face mask when cleaning. In an area known to be contaminated, a respirator is best.

  • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after removing gloves.

  • Control rodent populations in areas where people live or work. Note: people have contracted the disease camping so be aware of camp sites, camping gear and camping units where there may be active mouse populations.

When in doubt, proceed with caution and throw it out! We don’t want to lose anyone else in our community to a preventable hantavirus death.

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