Beware of deer mice carrying hantavirus
One of the dangers of cleaning out attics, garages, barns and sheds comes from the seemingly innocuous critters that have nested there: the deer mouse.
The deer mouse can be many different colors but is distinguishable by a white belly and white feet.
Garfield County Public Health officials want people to be aware of the dangers of hantavirus, a disease that is transferred to humans in mouse excrement inhaled with dust in the air.
“Becoming exposed is easier than it might seem,” said Danielle Dudley, Garfield County Public Health nurse. “You could go into a storage space and pull down a box that has rodent urine or droppings on it. When you sweep off the droppings the air fills with dust that gets into your lungs, creating an opportunity for exposure.”
Colorado has the second-largest number of hantavirus cases. Garfield County has the fifth-highest prevalence of the disease in Colorado.
While cases of hantavirus are rare — 115 people have contracted hantavirus in Colorado since 1993, six in Garfield County in the same period — the mortality rate is rather high at 37 percent.
Fortunately, there have been no deaths linked to the disease in Garfield County, and the last confirmed case here was in 2017, but the risk is still there.
At first, people with the virus think they’ve come down with the flu, Dudley said.
“Then it gets to the other symptoms, like breathing issues,” she said.
At that point, it is difficult for doctors to really help.
“Unfortunately, because it’s a virus there’s nothing specifically that the medical community can do, the body just has to fight it,” Dudley said.
Treatment includes keeping the patient hydrated and keeping the fever down.
“If you have these symptoms, and you have had contact with mice, specifically deer mice, let that be your red flag,” public health spokesperson Carrie Godes said.
Cases of hantavirus increase in the summer months, in part because rodents are out and about now that it’s warmer, and because people are cleaning sheds and other places the deer mouse likes to nest.
Other than keeping rodents out of homes and buildings, the best precaution is to avoid stirring up dust that contains mouse droppings.
“Never vacuum, sweep or do anything that stirs up dust without first spraying the area down,” Dudley said.
Health officials recommend wetting the area with a bleach solution (one and a half cups of bleach to one gallon of water) and ventilating the mouse-infested areas before cleaning.
Dust masks are also a good idea.
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Peak Health Alliance successfully reduced insurance premiums and cost of care in Summit County, and want to do the same in Garfield County.