California’s First Plague Case in 5 Years Is a Reminder to Protect Yourself Outdoors
A California resident has been diagnosed with plague, the state's first case of the deadly disease in five years.
The patient is a hiking enthusiast and South Lake Tahoe resident whom public health officials think may have been bitten by a flea while walking their dog, El Dorado County Health and Human Services reported Tuesday.
"Plague is naturally present in many parts of California, including higher elevation areas of El Dorado County," El Dorado County Public Health Officer Dr. Nancy Williams said. "It's important that individuals take precautions for themselves and their pets when outdoors, especially while walking, hiking and/or camping in areas where wild rodents are present. Human cases of plague are extremely rare but can be very serious."
Officials think the patient contracted the disease while walking along the Truckee River Corridor north of Highway 50 or the Tahoe Keys area in South Lake Tahoe. The patient is currently recovering at home.
The news comes about two weeks after a New Mexico man died from septicemic plague, CNN reported at the time. It was the second case of the plague reported in New Mexico this year.
Plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Humans usually contract it after handling an infected animal or being bitten by a rodent flea that carries the bacterium. While it is infamous as the disease responsible for the Black Death that killed 50 million people in Africa, Asia and Europe during the 14th century, it can now be treated effectively with antibiotics if diagnosed promptly.
Plague was first introduced to the U.S. from rats arriving on steamships in 1900. The last urban epidemic was in Los Angeles in 1924 and 1925. Since then, it has passed to rural rodent populations in the Western U.S., and most U.S. cases now occur in two Western regions: northern New Mexico, northern Arizona, and southern Colorado or California, southern Oregon, and far western Nevada. There are an average of seven U.S. cases each year.
The last time plague was reported in California was in 2015, when two visitors to Yosemite National Park were infected by contact with either rodents or fleas, The Associated Press reported. They both recovered.
Around 20 ground squirrels and chipmunks were exposed to plague in the South Lake Tahoe area between 2016 and 2019, however.
To protect themselves from plague, El Dorado County officials recommend that residents avoid contact with wild rodents, tuck long pants into boots and spray their cuffs and socks with repellent to avoid flea bites, keep pets away from wild rodents and protect pets with flea products, among other measures. Anyone who becomes sick after spending time in an area where plague is present should contact a doctor. Symptoms include fever, nausea, weakness and swollen lymph nodes and usually emerge within two weeks of exposure.
Hundreds of endangered sea turtles were stranded on beaches after suffering "cold stunning" in the waters off Cape Cod, Mass. Local rescuers and wildlife rehabilitators stabilized the turtles at the New England Aquarium (NEAQ) and National Marine Life Center and began treatment. Many of the sea turtles were transported by land or air to partner facilities around the Eastern Seaboard for longer-term care to make room for more incoming, cold-stunned animals.
Rehabilitators at The Turtle Hospital in the Florida Keys assess critically endangered, cold-stunned Kemp's ridley sea turtles flown in after rescue in New England. The Turtle Hospital<p>NEAQ and local rescuers begin seeing turtles every fall when water temperatures drop to that 50 degrees F threshold, and typically expect to find them into early January. After that, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/sea-turtle-cape-cod-weather-2621527394.html" target="_self">temperatures are so cold that any animals found are usually no longer alive</a>.</p><p>Merigo estimated that this year's cold season "looks very busy" and noted that local rescue efforts had already surpassed 400 turtles.</p><p>"It is a lot of animals. They're still coming in," she told EcoWatch as she surveyed 39 rescued turtles that day and 20 the day prior. "So far, this is a huge year."</p><p>At NEAQ, the turtles are gradually warmed up about five to 10 degrees F a day. More aggressive warming can cause serious damage and the turtle might not survive, Merigo said. Emergency treatments also include providing replacement fluids, balancing electrolytes and addressing pneumonia. Assessments take place for other serious problems too, such as shell or limb fractures, frostbite, emaciation and eye damage.<span></span></p><p>As local aquariums don't have the capacity to care for all the injured turtles, a group of private pilots called <a href="https://www.turtlesflytoo.org/" target="_blank">"Turtles Fly Too"</a> donated planes, fuel and time to transport some to various partner facilities around the country. Other turtles were driven to closer care facilities.</p><p>"We have a huge network of really great partners working with us, so if we can spread out the care, we can give better care to all the animals," Merigo said.</p><p>The 40 Kemp's ridley sea turtles recovering in The Turtle Hospital will continue to be treated and rehabilitated anywhere from 30 days to a year, depending on the severity of injuries, Zirkelbach said.</p><p>The turtle expert noted that while she's treated cold-stunned turtles from the north before, the newest arrivals were the most cold-stunned Kemp's ridleys ever received at one time.</p>
After rescue, cold-stunned sea turtles received immediate emergency care and assessments at the New England Aquarium. Caitlin Cunningham / New England Aquarium<p>In the past decade, the Gulf of Maine, which spans from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia, has warmed 99 percent faster than the rest of the ocean, Zirkelbach said. The warm water encourages turtles that migrate north along the Gulf Stream in warmer months to stay in the bay longer.</p><p>"Turtles that fail to migrate south get stuck in the unique horseshoe-shaped topography of the Cape Cod peninsula, and when temperatures drop, the bay becomes a death trap," she added.</p><p>Before ocean temperatures warmed, the waters of Maine were too cold for many of these sea turtles, Merigo echoed. Now, with warming sea surface temperatures, Maine can reach the high 70s to low 80s, which is "perfect turtle temperature," she said. The potential for more turtles getting trapped in the bay and then cold-stunned is nerve-racking for Merigo.</p><p>In addition to shifting habitats as waters warm, warming global temperatures also disrupt natural gender balance in sea turtles, Merigo warned. Gender is determined by the temperature of eggs in nests, and as the planet warms, it will result in all females at some point, she said.</p><p>"The turtles we work with are all endangered and threatened," Merigo said. "For sea turtles in general, the future is a little grim. Climate change is real; it does impact them."</p>
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