Why is Lake Tahoe closed? Chipmunks test positive for lethal disease

El Dorado county confirms areas around the lake will be closed till August 6 and vector-control treatments will be done to prevent the spread of the disease


                            Why is Lake Tahoe closed? Chipmunks test positive for lethal disease
A photo of Lake Tahoe with an insert of a chipmunk (@laketahoeofficial/Instagram/ Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

As Covid-19 case numbers are skyrocketing all over the US and the world, the last thing we all need is news of another disease outbreak. Unfortunately for residents and visitors near Lake Tahoe, California, that is not the case. On August 3, El Dorado County officials confirmed that several visitor centers and public areas will be closed at least until Friday, August 6, owing to a deadly disease, but not in humans. In fact, it was chipmunks who tested positive. 

The outbreak near Lake Tahoe is not the first news of a deadly new disease outbreak this year. On July 23, the CDC confirmed over 100 cases of the 'superbug' Candida auris in Texas and Washington DC. The same day, a grade four student was confirmed to have died from the plague in Colorado, as cases began to be reported in other cities in the state. On July 16, we also reported on the first case of Monkeypox in the US since 2003, from a traveler from Nigeria. 

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The news is a strong warning for all of us, that deadly diseases can quickly break out in communities if mitigation measures are not taken seriously. That's exactly why El Dorado County officials have sealed Lake Tahoe. According to reports, chipmunks in the area have tested positive for a deadly disease, that can transmit to humans. 



 

What disease was detected?

The US Forest Service confirmed that chipmunks in the area tested positive for the bubonic plague, the same disease that caused the Black Death in Europe in the 1300s. Numerous positive plague tests have forced officials to close the popular Taylor Creek Visitor Center and nearby Kiva Beach. The areas closed off also include a hiking trail along a creek that leads to the lake. 

However, there's no need to panic just yet. Lisa Herron, a public affairs specialist for the Forest Service told The Guardian, "Bubonic plague is naturally occurring in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and this region. It’s something that visitors need to take precautions about, but it’s not something that they need to worry about." While the areas are closed off, officials are working to complete "eradication treatments" that include vector control, meant to target the fleas that can carry the disease. The fleas carry the disease from rodents like squirrels and chipmunks to humans. By targeting the fleas, officials can ensure chipmunk populations are not affected, but the disease doesn't spread to humans. 



 

If detected in time, the plague is also extremely treatable. If you live in the area, and experience symptoms like sudden fever and chills, headache, and muscle ache please do see a doctor. It can take up to two weeks from exposure for symptoms to first emerge. In the meantime, the Forest Service has issued a list of preventive measures. For one, it is asking people living in the area to avoid all contact with chipmunks and squirrels. If you do see any rodents "acting strange or lethargic", please do report them to rangers as it is likely that they have been infected.

"Do not feed rodents in picnic or campground areas and never handle sick or dead rodents," El Dorado's public health officer Dr Bob Hartmann said. Herron also asked pet owners to keep their animals leashed, and at home as much as possible. If you do have to go out, ensure that they avoid burrows, where they can come into contact with the fleas and infect you. So far, no people have been reported to have come in contact with infected animals, or catch the plague. 

Outbreaks of the plague are not that uncommon, but thanks to quick mitigations measures like the ones being done by the Forest Service, the disease is no longer as terrifying as it once was. The same cannot be said for Covid-19, with new Delta and Delta Plus variants emerging. The only way to combat the disease is by getting vaccinated and wearing a mask. MEAWW urges everyone to get their shots if they haven't already. 

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