The death on June 17 of a Montauk man who had become infected with the hantavirus has shaken the man’s next-door neighbor, who narrowly escaped death two years ago from a similarly virulent respiratory infection.
The neighbor, a carpenter and longtime Montauk resident who did not want his name used, lives in the Shepherd’s Neck section of Montauk next to the house of David Hartstein, the 35-year-old chiropractor who became ill about three weeks ago after cleaning out his basement and a shed, and eventually succumbed to the rare rodent-borne disease. Two neighbors coming down with such a virulent lung infection seemed more than a coincidence, the man said last week.
The disease is carried by white-footed mice and is contracted through exposure to the animals’ feces and urine. Houses at Shepherd’s Neck date from the 1920s.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed on June 22 that hantavirus was the cause of Dr. Hartstein’s sickness. It was the third confirmed case on Long Island, all of which were fatal, and the fourth case in New York State.
“Believe me, things have crossed my mind,” Dr. Hartstein’s neighbor said on Friday. He was on life support during his seven-week hospital stay in 2009. Biopsies were taken, but “they didn’t find the hantavirus,” he said, although he acknowledged he was not sure if the tests had searched for the bug.
“We were not alerted,” Peter Constantakes of the New York Department of Health said, when asked whether the neighbor’s 2009 illness had put up a hantavirus flag.
The Health Department spokesman said that because the department has had experience with hantavirus, the disease would have crossed the minds of health officials, but he also stressed its rarity. The last confirmed case in the state was in 1998, the last on Long Island in 1995. All three of the Long Island cases were on the East End; one in Bridgehampton, the other on Shelter Island. The virus first surfaced in the Southwest in 1993.
Mr. Constantakes said one reason the disease proved fatal in most cases was the difficulty in finding the virus in otherwise healthy people. “It’s undetectable until a person gets sick.”
Hantavirus has cropped up all around the country and yet the Centers for Disease Control still know little about it, Mr. Constantakes said. Do infections show up in rainy weather? “More food, more droppings” makes sense, he said, but the jury was still out.
Early symptoms are flu-like, with fever and aching muscles, but the disease progresses quickly. Once in the lungs, no effective treatment has been found for full-blown hantavirus pulmonary syndrome.
A number of cases involved people who had been camping outdoors. The assumption is that contact with mouse droppings occurred when bedding was placed on or close to the ground. More cases have involved people who were cleaning out basements and sheds, as Dr. Hartstein had been doing. The infection is not spread by human-to-human contact.
Mr. Constantakes said his department advised performing such cleanups when the basement or shed was damp, “so dust is not flying around.” There should be as much ventilation as possible. Masks and gloves are recommended, and it is very important to wash up afterward, he said.
The State Health Department was scheduled to visit the Hartstein house this week to survey the premises. Mr. Constantakes said there would be no effort to trap mice in the area, as the source of hantavirus was already known.
Dr. Hartstein’s neighbor said he wants to speak to Health Department officials when they visit. “Being that close, such a similar thing. It’s got me concerned.”
Donations to help Heather Hartstein, Dr. Hartstein’s widow, and their three children, Devon, 5, Logan, 3, and Shane, 1, can be made to the East End Foundation, P.O. Box 1746, Montauk 11954.