National News

Rare Hantavirus May Have Caused Belmont Racetrack Worker’s Death

Posted June 22, 2018 10:38 p.m. EDT

A worker at Belmont Park racetrack has died in what health officials believe may be a rare case of hantavirus in New York state.

The worker, whose name has not been released, was found this month collapsed outside the ramshackle employee barracks, tucked between the horse barns and exercise pens where he and scores of other grooms, hot walkers and riders live, state health officials said. He was hospitalized and died June 6 of what appears to have been hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, an advanced stage of the virus, according to the state Department of Health’s preliminary findings.

The illness, the pulmonary form of which has a nearly 40 percent fatality rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cannot be communicated between humans. It is typically contracted by inhaling air contaminated with rodent droppings in confined spaces, or, in rare cases, via a bite.

In New York state, there have been five cases of hantavirus since the state began tracking it in 1993: three were in Long Island and two upstate, according to the state Health Department. Nationwide, there have been 728 reports of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome between 1993 and 2017, according to the CDC. (The center is reviewing the case at Belmont, which will officially determine if hantavirus caused the death.)

At Belmont, which is in Elmont, New York, near the Queens border, far from the sun-hatted hordes in the stands on big race days like the Belmont Stakes, dilapidated bungalows house the mostly immigrant workforce responsible for cosseting and caring for the thoroughbreds that race there. According to interviews with residents, a jockey and a former trainer, the barns and living spaces are plagued with rats.

“When you get down on your knees to do a horse up? They run up your legs,” said Peter Daly, a former trainer who now owns Tack Room Products, a supply shop across the street from the park.

Inspectors on Thursday ordered the removal of 32 workers from rooms they found had dangerous conditions. They have been relocated to other housing on-site, according to the New York Racing Association, a nonprofit corporation. Between 900 and 1,000 people live on the premises. The racing association, which is responsible for the housing, has begun patching holes, securing overflowing feed bins and containing waste to remediate the problem.

“We are redoubling our prior efforts to address appropriate rodent control measures throughout all backstretch facilities,” Patrick McKenna, a spokesman for the racing association, said in an email.

Drawn by the feasts of horse oats and refuse, rats often pass unimpeded from the barns through holes visible in the sides of the cinder-block dorms and small clapboard shacks where the workers live, according to workers who reside there. Rooms are often shared, and many are squalid, with mattresses or pallets on the floor, some with punched-out windows covered by cardboard. The workers asked not to be named because they feared reprisal for criticizing the facility, which is state-owned and operated by the racing association.

“It’s a challenging setting because of the nature of the industry; rodents like the environment,” said Brad Hutton, the state Department of Health’s deputy commissioner for public health.

Hutton and a team of epidemiologists and inspectors have spent the past several days at the track, assessing conditions and teaching workers how to identify early symptoms of hantavirus. The illness can start with flulike symptoms and can progress over weeks to the point where “it feels like someone is sitting on your chest,” Hutton said. As inspectors have visited the facility this week to root out the conditions that may have caused the possible case of hantavirus, they have also found other types of infestation, Hutton said.

One worker, who said he has lived in the barracks on the racetrack grounds for 20 years, showed a reporter the roughly 10-by-12-foot room he shares with another man: Blotches of blood from crushed bedbugs stained the walls. Next to a pillow was a can of repellent with which his roommate sleeps.

NYRA, as the New York Racing Association is known, was returned from state to private control last year. It has made some improvements to the facility, which was constructed at the turn of the 20th century, as part of a $30 million multiyear campaign that includes renovations to more than 50 residential cottages and nearly 30 barns. In 2016, the association completed construction of a new residential dormitory, and is in the midst of building a second. This week, lawmakers voted to make it eligible to receive state funding for the redevelopment project.

“While the improvements have been substantial and meaningful, there is more work to be done,” McKenna said.