Tubing business survives blastomycosis outbreak
Wolf River Trips: ‘We’re not going to close’
By Scott Bellile
A summer 2015 blastomycosis outbreak on the Little Wolf River brought statewide attention to New London’s Wolf River Trips and Campground, but owner Mark Flease said the business didn’t take a hard hit.
Wolf River Trips and Campground ended its seasonal run last weekend and will reopen next spring. The number of tubers on the river decreased throughout this past summer, Flease said, but that brought a relief to his mostly part-time staff that normally deals with rowdy crowds.
“Even some of my guys that work here are like, ‘Now this is kind of nice. A thousand, 1,500 people, this is more tolerable.’”
Flease said he didn’t cut staff or send workers home early in response to the slower traffic. He instead put his staff to work on long-awaited side projects.
None of Wolf River Trips and Campground’s 70 to 80 employees has gotten sick, according to Flease.
Flease has taken issue with the state’s investigation of this year’s outbreak. He said he believes the DHS shows bias when interviewing hospital patients who have possible cases of blastomycosis.
The questionnaire used in hospitals that Flease takes issue with, titled “Blastomycosis Cluster 2015,” asks patients questions including if and when they went tubing on the Wolf or Little Wolf Rivers, whether they started their trip near the Royalton or Ostrander bridge and if they rented tubes from Wolf River Trips and Campground in New London.
The DHS told the Press Star it uses a form that lists specific locations any time an outbreak has been linked to a common source. An alternative questionnaire is available if the case is not linked to the New London area, one that doesn’t mention the Little Wolf River.
“Any investigation begins with a generic questionnaire that asks what activities may have put the person at risk,” the DHS said. “If there are multiple cases with a commonality, then a specific form is used. This is the procedure for any outbreak.”
Flease also hasn’t agreed with the DHS’s practice of releasing weekly blastomycosis case counts on its website and to the media.
“The case counts are public record, and posting them is the most efficient means to keep up with the demand for the updates from the media,” the DHS responded. “We do this for other diseases, like influenza and West Nile virus, too.”
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services has reported 38 confirmed cases and 37 probable cases of blastomycosis as of Tuesday, Sept. 22.
The DHS states on its website that those who have visited the Little Wolf River since Memorial Day weekend in late May could have been exposed to the fungus that causes blastomycosis.
Flease speculated the local blastomycosis cases are linked to people trespassing onto private land along the Little Wolf River.
A person may catch an infection by disturbing a moist fungus near decaying wood and inadvertently inhaling a spore, but in some cases the spore may be disturbed by natural forces. Symptoms can take two to 15 weeks to arise and may include coughs, fever, chills, muscle aches, joint pain or chest pain, according to the DHS.
“People can contract it through airborne particles,” the DHS said. “And there are a minority of people who have contracted it without leaving their tubes or kayaks or canoes, although most cases did have contact with the soil.”
The DHS said scientists have not investigated enough blastomycosis outbreaks to predict whether the exposure risk will be as high in summer 2016.
Some weekends at Wolf River Trips and Campground are already booked for summer 2016, Flease said. Contrary to rumors, the business isn’t shutting down anytime soon.
“We’re ready to go. We’ll be rocking and rolling next year,” Flease said.