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Throughout the history of the American West, water issues have shown their ability to both unite and divide communities. As an imbalance between water supplies and demands grows in the region, KUNC is committed to covering the stories that emerge.

Raft trips hit hard by the Grand Canyon’s largest recorded norovirus outbreak, CDC reports

The place where the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers meet on the floor of the Grand Canyon is known as the Confluence. Many see it as holy ground; others see it as an opportunity for economic development.
Laurel Morales
/
KJZZ
This past spring Grand Canyon National Park became the site of an extended norovirus outbreak, with more than 200 cases of gastrointestinal illness among rafters and backpackers.

Norovirus is a nasty stomach bug usually associated with cruise ships and restaurants. It can sicken people for days with gastrointestinal problems. The virus is so contagious that outbreaks can pop up in some unexpected places — like the Grand Canyon.

Jacquie King, along with 14 friends, launched rafts into the Colorado River in early May. The craft brewer from Ogden, Utah said the trip started smoothly, other than it being unseasonably warm.

But when they ran into other rafters they were warned that norovirus was sweeping through the canyon.

By day nine of their trip, one person in King’s group was sick with gastrointestinal troubles. They had all of the telltale signs of a norovirus infection — nausea, vomiting, diarrhea.

“After Patient Zero, it was one to two people a day going down,” King said. Their worst day was when the group ran Upset Rapid, a huge, roiling whitewater rapid right in the middle of the canyon.

“We had three people go down almost instantly after we got through the rapid, people vomiting over the side of the boat, just couldn't hold anything in,” King said.

King eventually became ill herself. Her group had a military grade metal rocket box to use as a toilet. Waste disposal is required of all commercial and private rafting trips that make the three-week long journey. With multiple people sick at the same time, King said theirs was getting heavy use.

“You're sitting on a rocket box in the outdoors in the middle of nowhere, hugging a bucket,” she said. “It's about as uncomfortable as you can imagine.”

King’s group was not alone in its misery. Justus Burkitt and his wife backpacked the canyon two weeks after King floated through.

“I would say about two hours after I started drinking the water from the river, my stomach was in tremendous pain,” Burkitt said. “It felt like there was like a balloon being blown up from inside of me that was like being overfilled.”

Burkitt ended up hiking out while still feeling the effects. He ran into other backpackers who suffered worse than he did and had to be hauled out by rescuers.

Both King and Burkitt’s stomach illness were part of what a new CDC report calls the largest documented outbreak of gastrointestinal illness in the Grand Canyon backcountry. The likeliest cause, according to the report, is norovirus. From April to June of this year there were more than 200 confirmed cases, and likely a lot more that went uncounted.

“The rafting is super exciting and it is definitely close to nature, but it's very close to nature, which means that people are going to the bathroom not too far away from where they're eating,” said Janine Cory, a CDC spokesperson.

The virus can proliferate anywhere groups of people gather for an extended period of time, especially if they’re using the same bathroom and eating the same food. The rafts themselves can become vectors, Cory said.

“You have toilets on the raft, you have food on the raft, and you think about how easy it is even in your own home, to spread a stomach bug between kids and adults,” Cory said. “Here you have a rafting trip. You don't have great access to hand washing. There is running water, but that is river water. It's not a sink with lots of good soap and clean towels.”

Gastrointestinal illness is nothing new in the Grand Canyon, said Sharon Hester with Arizona Raft Adventures. The company outfits trips in the canyon. A few of their guides got sick this spring, Hester said. Between norovirus and COVID-19, Hester said it can be tough to keep germs from spreading in tight-knit groups, even in the great outdoors. Quarantine rafts have been adopted on some trips.

“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,” Hester said. “Or if there's someone else sick, it would be the ‘sick boat’ where everybody would try to stay away.”

Norovirus outbreaks have popped up in the Grand Canyon before, Hester said. The virus can live in the river’s water, and then easily spread among groups who all use the same toilets and eat communally. The virus can survive in beach sand, where rafters set up camps, allowing it to spread between trips. Hand sanitizer, a favorite among backpackers or rafters looking to bring less gear, doesn’t kill norovirus, according to the CDC.

As the number of tourists visiting the national park has grown, and outbreaks have become more frequent over the years, Hester said raft companies have been forced to change protocols.

“Don't vomit in the river. Vomit in a garbage bag. Isolate people. Hand-washing has gotten more and more strict. Making sure the water was always purified,” Hester said.

By the time Jacquie King’s trip of 15 people got off the river all but four in her group had come down with gastrointestinal issues. They started adding small amounts of bleach to their drinking water to try and disinfect it.

Even with all the stomach trouble, would it keep her away from another Grand Canyon trip?

“Oh no, I am chomping at the bit to go back down and have a different experience,” King said.

Reporter Alex Hager contributed reporting for this story.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported by the Walton Family Foundation.

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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