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People are getting explosive gastroenteritis at the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon viewed from the South Rim adjacent to the El Tovar Hotel on November 11, 2019, in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.
Enlarge / The Grand Canyon viewed from the South Rim adjacent to the El Tovar Hotel on November 11, 2019, in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

The Grand Canyon is an immense, vibrantly painted geological wonder, treasured for its awe-inspiring stratified architecture, which has been spectacularly sculpted over millions of years. Up close, it will blow your mind and take your breath away—and if you’ve visited recently, it may also violently flush your colon and have you projectile vomiting your granola bars.

That’s right—the majestic natural wonder has been the site of a months-long outbreak of gastrointestinal illness, likely caused by norovirus. The virus was confirmed to be the cause of illnesses among at least eight rafting trips. Overall, more than 150 river rafters and backcountry campers have fallen ill since April, according to a recent update from the Grand Canyon National Park Service.

While many may have sought the outdoor grandeur in hopes of avoiding the pandemic coronavirus, it seems they were instead met with a different germ that has been savagely hollowing out innards at a pace many orders of magnitude faster than the Colorado River gutted the southwestern section of the Colorado Plateau. Amid the smoothly carved buttes and intricately chiseled chasms serenely shaped over eons, park-goers are blowing chunks from both ends in hot seconds. And instead of reaching both the North and South Rims during their visits, some are forced to remain perched on the edge of a far smaller basin.

It’s unclear how exactly the illness is spreading among visitors, and clusters of illnesses have struck unconnected parts of the park. But the park service warns that the highly infectious virus can swiftly rip through river tours and campsites. It can spread from person to person directly, through contaminated food and water, or via contaminated surfaces. The park service advises visitors to wash their hands regularly and practice general cleanliness, avoid sharing food, stay home if they’re feeling ill, and isolate people who develop illness during trips.

Gushing gorge

The park also cautions against drinking water from features of the canyon, including the Colorado River, waterfalls, pools, streams, and side canyons, or inadvertently getting water in your mouth while recreating in such waters. If visitors need to use canyon water sources during backcountry visits, the water should be filtered and then either chemically disinfected or brought to a roiling boil.

While horrifying to experience, norovirus is not typically life-threatening. But the park service warns that an acute case of gastroenteritis in an extremely hot, physically demanding environment can easily become dangerous. On Tuesday, the park posted another high heat warning, stating that the inner canyon is expected to reach 110°F (43°C). There have also been several reports of rescues, including sickened people being lifted out of the canyon by helicopter.

But even for those capable of getting out on their own, the escape will likely be a traumatic trek. The park reminds visitors that they are not allowed to leave behind whatever toxic sludge they spew while in the canyon. As the park service notes, “If a restroom is not available, all human body waste solids should be contained and carried out using a portable toilet or a specifically engineered bag waste containment system (capable of being sealed securely and containing enzymes and polymers to treat human solid waste). Vomit should also be contained in a sealable container and carried out of the canyon.”

One tidbit of good news is that since the park has begun posting advisories about the illnesses, case reports have slowed to a trickle. The bulk of the cases occurred in May, suggesting the outbreak may be bottoming out.

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