June 20th: A 16-year-old student in Colorado, Taylor Gaes, has died tragically from a rare strain of plague. The Poudre High football and baseball player had been fighting – what his family assumed – were early symptoms of a “bad flu” in the days before his death, his father, Shannon Gaes, told the Coloradoan. Taylor had a high fever that came and went, and he complained of muscle aches and soreness.
More than $15,000 have been raised in an online fundraiser in order to support the teen’s family but it does little to ease the pain of this tragedy.
An investigation is still underway, but it is believed that the teen may have contracted the septicemic plague from fleas on a dead rodent or other animal on his family’s land in the Cherokee Park area near Livermore, northwest of Fort Collins – Larimer County health officials confirmed to the Coloradoan Saturday.
Septicemic plague occurs when bacteria enters the bloodstream directly — it is highly fatal and very rare in humans.
Health authorities are now warning people who may have visited the family’s home after Gaes’ June 8 death — the day after his birthday — to be extra vigilant and careful.
“There is a small chance that others might have been bitten by infected fleas, so anyone who was on the family’s land in the last seven days should seek medical attention immediately if a fever occurs,” Larimer health officials said in a statement late Friday.
The Larimer County Department of Health and Environment has teamed up with experts from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state health department and Larimer County Coroner’s Office.
While Gaes is the first Larimer County resident confirmed to have contracted the plague since 1999, a Weld County resident was infected in 2004 while camping in the Red Feather Lakes area.
Transmitted through rodent populations in a localized area, this type of plague was found earlier this year in a remote part of Soapstone Natural Area – the part that was not open to the public. Plague often results in sweeping animal “die-offs.”
An average of seven human plague cases are reported each year across the country, according to the CDC, usually concentrated in the Four Corners region in the Southwest and parts of California, Oregon and western Nevada.
Bubonic plague is the most common form of the disease among human, accounting for about 80% of cases. Symptoms begin two to six days after the bite of an infected flea or contact with an infected rodent or cat. Typical symptoms include swollen lymph nodes, sudden onset of fever or chills, severe headache, extreme exhaustion, and a general feeling of illness. A second type of plague is the pneumonic plague, which occurs when bacteria are inhaled.
Two days after first getting sick, the family had to leave a Colorado Rockies game in the fifth inning because Gaes was in too much pain. He started feeling better, and his parents put heating pads on his back — he and his dad watched comedy shows until 2 a.m.
“He was laughing. I was laughing,” Shannon Gaes recalled.
But about 5:30 a.m. Monday, Taylor woke up his parents to tell them he had just coughed up blood.
Taylor and his mother, Dawn Gaes, got in their vehicle to head to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins. Shannon Gaes jumped in his truck to follow them.
“My wife didn’t even make it to the hospital,” he said.
Taylor stopped breathing on the 20-plus-mile drive and his mother pulled over to call an ambulance. They were 5 miles from Poudre Valley Hospital. He died moments later.