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State: Belmont worker may have died of rare virus tied to rodents

A backstretch worker at Belmont Park died June

A backstretch worker at Belmont Park died June 6 from symptoms consistent with hantavirus, officials said. Credit: Jeff Bachner

State health authorities are investigating whether hantavirus disease — a rare infection caused by exposure to rodent excretions — was the reason a Belmont Park track worker died earlier this month.

The suspected case is one of 728 nationwide since 1993 when the rodent-borne disease first appeared in the United States, affecting 48 people in a four-state outbreak.

“Hantavirus is very rare. There have been five cases involving New York State residents over the last 25 years,” said Brad Hutton, deputy health commissioner in the state office of public health.

Most cases of the infection occur when people inhale airborne particles of rodent excretions in confined areas. Hantavirus is not transmitted person to person and there is no danger to Belmont Park visitors, Hutton said Friday.

Any suspected case involving the pathogen must be reported to state health authorities in Albany. The state then launches a wide-ranging investigation that involves laboratory testing, examining circumstances that may have led to the infection and assessing whether others are at risk.

The infection causes severe pulmonary distress, and in some instances, a hemorrhagic fever and kidney damage. The death rate is in the range of 30 percent to 50 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

New York health authorities learned about the case earlier this week from the Nassau County Department of Health, which had logged information about the death into the state’s special electronic reporting system. The database was designed for notifying authorities about dangerous pathogens, Hutton said.

The New York Racing Association has temporarily relocated workers who live in the residential section of Belmont Park. The affected employee is believed to have been exposed to the pathogen there. The association described the action as taken out of an abundance of caution — and at the urging of state health officials.

State Sen. Elaine Phillips (R-Nassau) said racing association officials had assured her that remediation efforts were well underway.

“Initial reports indicate that there are no additional suspected cases of the virus,” Phillips said in a statement Friday.

“The health and well-being of all employees is of the utmost importance and I have been assured NYRA is taking the necessary precautions to prevent further incidents,” she said.

Clinical specimens from the Belmont employee have been sent to the CDC for further testing and confirmation. The employee — who was treated at a local hospital and whose name is being withheld for privacy reasons — worked in the park’s backstretch area and died June 6 from symptoms consistent with the infection.

Preliminary findings suggest the employee had hantavirus pulmonary syndrome following exposure to rodent excretions in the backstretch. That area of the park is not open to the general public. The worker was found unconscious June 1 outside a housing unit.

“With hantavirus we are concerned about airborne transmission of the virus, when people are sweeping out a dusty basement or cabin. Sporadic cases here in New York have mostly been among individuals who were cleaning a basement or cabin,” Hutton said.

Two of the five documented cases of hantavirus infection that have occurred in New York in the past 25 years involved Suffolk County residents, said Grace Kelly-McGovern, spokeswoman for the Suffolk County Department of Health.

A 2012 infection occurred in a resident who had been camping in the Adirondacks and reported being bitten by a rodent. He recovered. In 2011, Montauk chiropractor David Hartstein, 35, died of the infection. He contracted the pathogen after cleaning his basement.

Rodents that harbor the virus shed it in their urine, feces and saliva. It is carried mostly by mice, but rats and voles have been identified as carriers in some parts of the country, according to the CDC.

In New York, two different strains of the virus are known to cause infections, each transmitted by a different species of mouse, Hutton said.

One viral strain known as “sin nombre” (Spanish for nameless) is transmitted by the deer mouse, a widespread menace that is also a notorious carrier of Lyme disease-spreading ticks. The other strain is known as New York hantavirus, which is spread by the white-footed mouse.

Hutton said it is not yet known which of the two strains may have infected the Belmont Park worker. “That is pending confirmation based on further testing,” he said.

Hantavirus is not transmitted person to person and there is no danger to horses or pets at the park, state health officials said Friday.

Department of Health epidemiologists and environmental health inspectors, working in conjunction with the CDC, are inspecting residences in the Belmont Park area and conducting interviews with backstretch workers.

State health department teams have found no additional suspected cases in a preliminary review.

Primer on hantavirus

— Rare pathogen linked to rodent excretions.

— Exceptionally rare in New York. There have been five identified cases of hantavirus since 1993, not including the suspected case reported Friday.

— Health officials say there is no danger to the public because the section under investigation is part of Belmont Park’s employee housing and is not open to the general public.

— Hantavirus causes a potentially lethal disease in humans, but poses no danger to horses or pets.

— The pathogen is spread from wild rodents to people and is found in rodent urine, saliva, and feces. It can become airborne in confined spaces when disturbed by rodents, or by human activities, such as sweeping or vacuuming.

Sources: New York State Department of Health; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention