A University of Montana student infected with hantavirus in early March returned to class Tuesday, though he continues to recover from the virus that nearly killed him.
Antonio Morsette, a 20-year-old environmental studies junior from Rocky Boy, believes he contracted the virus while power-washing recycled items at the university’s recycling center.
Morsette is meeting with the Missoula City-County Health Department this week as the agency continues to investigate the source of the infection.
“The most likely cause is the recycling center on campus,” Morsette said Tuesday. “Every Friday, we’d clean recycling. The (health department) said we were not supposed to be power-washing like we do. We weren’t wearing masks.”
Morsette signed on with the recycling center in January. By early March, about the 5th, he began suffering intense headaches. He said his eyes burned and his body was taken by hot and cold flashes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said symptoms generally surface one to five weeks after exposure and grow progressively worse after the first 10 days.
“I felt really fatigued and got winded really easily,” he said. “It just progressed.”
Morsette passed his symptoms off as the common flu. But when the symptoms didn’t subside, he visited the Curry Health Center, where he tested negative for influenza.
By March 11, unable to sleep, Morsette visited Providence St. Patrick Hospital. He was admitted the next morning when his fever topped 103 degrees and he struggled to breathe.
He was placed in a medically induced coma.
“It felt like, they put the stuff in, and I blinked and woke up four days later,” he said. “I didn’t know how much time had passed when I woke up.”
Morsette was discharged from the hospital’s intensive care unit on March 19, when he was told he’d contracted hantavirus. He returned home over the weekend.
Cindy Hotchkiss, director of the Health Promotion Division with the City-County Health Department, said hantavirus is one of the state’s 68 reportable diseases.
Morsette’s was the first confirmed case in Missoula County since 2000, when a 19-year-old female contracted the virus.
“When a test comes back positive, we get a report showing the patient has it,” Hotchkiss said. “We get the background from the doctor for potential symptoms so we know when the incubation took place to help locate the possible source of exposure.”
Hotchkiss said the department is continuing to investigate that source of exposure, though the university’s recycling center is a possibility. Last Friday, the health department asked the facility to change its policies.
“There’s no exact way to pinpoint where a patient contracted it,” Hotchkiss said. “But even though our investigation isn’t complete, just looking at their (recycling center) procedures, it was enough to recommend changes, and we made those on Friday.”
UM also issued a campuswide email Friday, saying the health department had confirmed a hantavirus case within the county.
The email did not say the case involved a UM student, or that it was possible the virus was contracted on campus.
“The only way the university would have known the patient is if the patient came forward and told them himself,” said Hotchkiss. “They talked to us about how you get it, and we gave them all the standard information.”
Peggy Kuhr, vice president of integrated communications at UM, said the recycling center is being cleaned according to state procedures.
She added that university policies don’t allow the disclosure of student's health information, or information that could lead to a student’s identification.
“That was one of those situations where it’s fine for him (Morsette) to come forward and talk about it, but we don’t disclose that,” said Kuhr. “We wanted people to be aware that the virus was identified in this county.”
Montana ranks fifth in the number of reported hantavirus cases within the U.S, with 35. Between 1993 and 2013, 606 cases were reported nationally, resulting in 217 deaths.
The last fatality in Montana occurred in 2013 when 20-year-old Rhea Lynn Baxter of Bozeman died from the virus. She was the 10th death in the state related to the illness.
According to the CDC, certain rodents, such as deer mice in the West, shed the virus in their urine, droppings and saliva. The virus is mainly transmitted to people when they breathe air contaminated with the virus.
Guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils and rodents from pet stores are not known to carry hantavirus, the CDC said.
Morsette has since got a hair cut and attended a movie. He’d never heard of hantavirus until he contracted it.
“I feel better than I did yesterday,” he said Tuesday. “I’m back in class and my professors are helping me.”