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Hantavirus Fears Chase Cross-Country Runners

September 23, 1993|KIM Q. BERKSHIRE and GEOFF BOUCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Fear of the potentially deadly hantavirus has Orange County athletes on the run.

High school officials have transferred three cross-country meets out of rural Carbon Canyon Regional Park and may move four others unless health officials can assure them that runners are safe from the virus, which is carried by deer mice, officials said.

The hantavirus, spread by a fine dust from deer mice droppings, was discovered recently in blood samples from rodents trapped in a remote part of South County. Officials are quick to note, however, that the virus found in five deer mice near San Clemente may be a different, less dangerous strain than the one linked to the deaths.

Nevertheless, two meets hosted by Brea-Olinda High School--one Tuesday and one scheduled for today--were moved to Craig Regional Park in Fullerton, officials said. Saturday's Sonora Invitational cross-country race will be held at the school instead of at Carbon Canyon Park, Cindy Ranii, Sonora High's principal, said Wednesday.

"Personally, I think (school officials) are overreacting, but I don't want to get sued, either," said Sonora cross-country Coach Russ Dunton. "I'd rather (runners) be protected."

Dan King, boys' cross-county coach at Brea-Olinda, said county health officials told adminstrators at his school not to hold meets in the rural park or even practice there until further notice. King said he expects an update from those officials on Monday.

The venue for all three races was changed after consultation with the head of the county's hantavirus investigation team. County vector ecologist Jim Webb said that he discussed the hantavirus risks with school officials.

"It's a natural environment and they decided they should exercise caution," Webb said. "I told them that as long as people stay on trails there should be no problem, but they decided they did not want to risk an encounter."

County researchers are expected to begin field studies to trap and test more rodents in the San Clemente area when proper safety equipment has been acquired. County officials said they hope to have a better idea of the threat facing residents in upcoming weeks, after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta complete tests on area rodent blood samples.

Dave Wilson, cross country coach at Katella High School, said Wednesday that he would not allow his runners in the Empire League championships scheduled at Carbon Canyon park Nov. 5.

"Katella won't be there if there's a virus in the woods," Wilson said. "We should assume the place is unsafe until park officials and the county vector (control officer) tells us otherwise."

Coaches in the South Coast League, whose schools are located in the area where the virus was discovered, could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.

Sonora Principal Ranii said the school would gladly err on caution's side to avoid the risk of infecting its runners. "We couldn't be certain it was safe for the runners," she said.

About 30 schools are expected to participate Saturday in the 15th running of the Sonora Invitational. Sonora was unable to move the event to Craig Park because the facility was already booked, and it was too late to take it elsewhere.

Webb said his agency has fielded hundreds of calls since the threat of the hantavirus, which has been linked to 33 deaths nationwide, arose in Orange County.

"People just want information, but there's very little we have to give them," Webb said.

Scientists have yet to isolate the viral strain responsible for the deaths that began in the desert Southwest this summer, and no cure exists.

"We got a call from some people who wanted to move out of their house, just sell it because of this," Webb said. "We don't believe the threat has reached that point yet, but we're caught in the middle. We have to tell them the dangers and hope that they don't overreact."

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