The Chaffee County Coroner has confirmed what Chris Banning's family has known for weeks: The 52-year-old died from hantavirus.
"I'm still kind of in a state of shock. I'm just starting to realize he's never going to come home," said Wendy Banning, Chris Banning's wife. "It's so senseless."
Chris died Jan. 11 at Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center in Salida, just days after showing flu-like symptoms.
On the evening of Thursday, Jan. 8, Wendy noticed her husband was achy and feverish.
By Sunday, he was dead.
"I never in 100 years thought this was going to be the outcome," Wendy said.
For Wendy, his passing still feels very raw.
"I'm just devastated," Wendy said. "At 46 years of age, I'm a widow, without my life partner, my best friend."
By the time Chris was hospitalized, his lungs had already begun to fill with fluid, according to Wendy. Blood tests returned with worrying results.
"At that point, the doctor at the ER asked if he could have been exposed to some mouse droppings," Wendy said. "Chris said not that he knew of … but I said it's possible."
Chris worked in construction, a job that may have brought him into contact with hantavirus.
Hantavirus is contracted from exposure to feces, urine or saliva from infected rodents, such as deer mice. The disease spreads when infected particles become airborne and are inhaled. Dusty areas like crawlspaces or outbuildings – the frequent domain of construction workers – can expose people to hantavrius, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hantavirus is rare, but has a high mortality rate, killing about 40 percent of those who contract the virus.
Chris died the same day he was admitted to the hospital.
"It can happen to anyone," Wendy said. "Be super aware. If you have mouse droppings, wear a mask. Don't take a chance. It is deadly. Don't minimize symptoms if you've been exposed to mouse droppings. It's very serious."
It can take weeks for hantavirus symptoms to appear. It is unclear where Chris contracted the disease.
Chaffee County Public Health evaluated sites where Chris may have contracted hantavirus. None were identified as the specific source of contamination, Chaffee County Public Health director Susan Ellis reported.
Ellis stated none of the sites were public locations.
"There was never any threat to the public with this at all," Ellis said. "No one else has gotten sick."
The coroner alerted Banning's family and others to their risk of exposure. They were advised to watch their symptoms for six weeks following potential exposure.
Banning's symptoms and environmental circumstances surrounding his illness prompted authorities to submit medical samples to a forensic pathologist. Test results took several weeks to process, and were released by Chaffee County Coroner Randy Amettis on Feb. 13. Chris Banning's official cause of death was hantavirus pulmonary syndrome.
"It was a very sad situation because he was an extremely healthy person," Ellis said. "Your heart just breaks for these types of things. They happen so quickly."
Banning's obituary described him as a "loyal, devoted and gentle spirit." He was a Buena Vista High School graduate.
Fifty cases of hantavirus were reported in Colorado between 2003 and 2013, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. During that 10-year period, CDPHE reported only one case in Chaffee County.
Hantavirus: Know the facts
Information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on hantavirus infection, symptoms and prevention.
How do people contract hantavirus? Hantavirus is contracted through exposure to urine, droppings and saliva from infected rodents. Deer mice are known hosts for hantavirus. When fresh rodent urine, droppings, or nesting materials are stirred up, tiny droplets containing the virus get into the air. In addition to airborne transmission, the virus may spread through rodent bites; touching nose or mouth after coming into contact with contaminated material; or eating contaminated food. Hantavirus cannot be transmitted from one person to another. Dogs and cats are not known to carry the disease, but may carry infected rodents indoors. Guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, and rodents from pet stores are not known to carry hantavirus.
What are the symptoms? Symptoms appear 1-5 weeks after exposure to contaminated material. Early symptoms include fatigue, fever and muscle aches, especially in the large muscle groups—thighs, hips, back, and sometimes shoulders. These symptoms are universal.
There may also be headaches, dizziness, chills, and abdominal problems, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. About half of all hantavirus patients experience these symptoms. Four to 10 days after the initial phase of illness, the late symptoms of HPS appear. These include coughing and shortness of breath as the lungs fill with fluid. Hantavirus has a mortality rate of 38 percent.
Who is susceptible to hantavirus? Anyone who comes into contact with rodents that carry hantavirus is at risk. Rodent infestation in and around the home remains the primary risk for hantavirus exposure. Even healthy individuals are at risk for infection if exposed to the virus.
Any activity that puts you in contact with rodent droppings, urine, saliva, or nesting materials can place you at risk for infection. Hantavirus is spread when virus-containing particles are stirred into the air and inhaled, so it is important to avoid actions that raise dust, such as sweeping or vacuuming. Activities that may put you at risk for hantavirus include opening and cleaning unused buildings; housecleaning; and work-related exposure in crawl spaces, under houses or unused buildings. Campers and hikers can also be exposed when they use infested trail shelters or camp in other rodent habitats.
How can hantavirus be prevented? Eliminate or minimize contact with rodents in your home, workplace and campsite. Seal holes inside and outside the home to keep rodents out; trap rodents; and clean rodent-infested areas with the appropriate precautions. Do not sweep or vacuum rodent-contaminated areas. Instead, use liquid disinfectants. Wear rubber gloves and an air-purifying N95 mask. For complete information on cleaning techniques, visit cdc.gov/hantavirus/pdf/hps_brochure.pdf