The Grand Canyon is home to incredible natural beauty. And this summer, an outbreak of norovirus. The stomach virus sickened hundreds of rafters and hikers… and prompted the CDC to take a look.
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Hundreds of Grand Canyon visitors left with more than selfies and prickly pear candy this summer. A record number of norovirus cases affected the interior of the park; so many cases that the US Park Service asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for help. Member station KUNC’s Luke Runyon spoke with some of the unlucky travelers.
LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Jacquie King and a group of 14 friends launched their rafts into the Colorado River in early May. The trip started off without a hitch, except that it was unusually hot for the season. But when they ran into other beams, they were warned. The norovirus was sweeping the canyon. By day 9, one person in King’s group was sick: stomach problems.
JACQUIE KING: After patient zero, one or two people were coming down a day. Our worst day was when we ran Upset Rapid.
RUNYON: Upset is a huge, turbulent whitewater rapid right in the middle of the canyon.
KING: And three people went down almost instantly after passing the rapid: people threw up over the side of the boat, they just couldn’t hold anything.
RUNYON: King fell ill that same day. His group had a military-grade metal rocket case to use as a toilet. That’s required of all the beams to store the human waste from the three-week journey. And his was getting a lot of use.
KING: You’re sitting on a rocket box outside in the middle of nowhere, hugging a bucket. And it’s… I mean, it’s about as awkward as you can imagine.
RUNYON: King’s group was not alone in their misery. Justus Burkit and his wife backpacked the canyon two weeks after King floated.
JUSTUS BURKIT: I would say that about two hours after I started drinking the river water, I had tremendous pain in my stomach. Like, it felt like there was a balloon inflated from inside of me that was, like, overfilled.
RUNYON: Both King and Burkit were part of what a new CDC report calls the largest documented outbreak of norovirus in the interior of the Grand Canyon. From April to June of this year, there were more than 200 confirmed cases and probably many more that went uncounted. Sharon Hester is with Arizona Raft Adventures, which organizes trips into the canyon. She says that some of her guides got sick this spring. And it can be hard to keep germs from spreading even outdoors.
SHARON HESTER: What they do is try to put them in a boat where they’re the only one rowing or they’re the only person in that boat. Or if there’s, you know, someone else sick, it would be the sick ship where everyone would try to stay away.
RUNYON: Hester says norovirus has been a problem in the canyon for years. The virus can live in warm river water and then spread easily between groups using the same toilets and eating communally. The CDC report says the virus can even survive on beach sand, where rafters set up camp, allowing it to spread between trips. As the number of tourists visiting the national park has grown and outbreaks have become more frequent over the years, Hester says raft companies have been forced to change protocols.
HESTER: Don’t throw up in the river. Vomit into a garbage bag. You know, isolate people, wash your hands. You know, he got more and more strict, making sure the water was always purified.
RUNYON: By the time Jacquie King’s group of 15 people came out of the river, all but four in her group had contracted norovirus. Even with all these stomach problems, would she keep her from another trip to the Grand Canyon?
KING: Oh, no, no. I, like… I’m looking forward to going back down and having a different experience.
RUNYON: A journey where no one has to hug a bucket.
For NPR News, I’m Luke Runyon in Grand Junction, Colorado.
(SOUNDBITE FROM BILLY STRINGS SONG, “HIDE AND SEEK”)
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