SNOWVILLE — The suspected hantavirus outbreak that hospitalized a Pulaski County family of five — killing two — began about two weeks after the family started cleaning out a mouse-infested mobile home that they planned to give to friends in need, according to one of their family members.
Julie Simpkins and her teenage daughter, Ginger, were the first to begin cleaning the trailer that had sat unused on their property for years. The mother and daughter died on Friday.
The rest of the family — father Tim Simpkins and two younger children — and Ginger’s teenage boyfriend were also hospitalized with the illness but were released after medical treatment led to a quick turnaround, said Dwayne Simpkins, Tim Simpkins’ brother.
Reached by phone on Monday, Dwayne Simpkins said Tim Simpkins is now back at home, making funeral arrangements. They’re still waiting to find out what caused the illness from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but they’re “pretty positive” the family contracted hantavirus, he said.
Hantavirus is carried by rodents and is generally found in areas where the animals are nesting, in their accumulations of feces and urine. It can be dispersed into the air when disturbed.
The virus is rare, with only 639 reported cases in the United States since 1993. Only two of those cases were diagnosed in Virginia, according to online data from health organizations.
Dwayne Simpkins said his brother’s family had lived in the mobile home where he believes they encountered the virus years ago while building the house where they now live. After moving into the new house, the Simpkins kept the trailer on their property, about 50 to 100 feet away from their house.
“The trailer sat there for a couple years empty,” Dwayne Simpkins said. “They sort of ignored it and hadn’t done anything with it. I think the mice just sort of took over. … Apparently one of them, or more than one of them, was carrying this virus.”
Dwayne Simpkins said that Julie and Ginger Simpkins started cleaning the trailer about a week before Tim Simpkins went in there.
They finished cleaning the mobile home on April 17, and movers came to take the trailer to a needy family the next day.
Ginger Simpkins first went to Carilion New River Medical Center on Wednesday morning.
“She went unconscious when her momma was rolling her in a wheelchair into the emergency room and stopped breathing,” Dwayne Simpkins said. “They had to resuscitate her. Her heart didn’t stop but she stopped breathing.”
Ginger Simpkins was then flown to Roanoke Memorial Hospital. Dwayne Simpkins said he drove Tim and Julie Simpkins to meet her there.
“I took Timmy and Julie to the hospital to be with Ginger,” he said. “They didn’t think they were that sick at the time. They didn’t know it, but they were headed down the same path as their daughter.”
On Wednesday and Thursday, the family assumed that the doctors were investigating the illness as hantavirus, while they were being treated for the flu, Dwayne Simpkins said.
Ginger Simpkins died on Friday morning, and Julie Simpkins died later that day.
After their deaths, Tim Simpkins and the two younger children were treated for hantavirus, Dwayne Simpkins said.
Doctors gave Tim Simpkins a different drug about noon on Friday, Dwayne Simpkins said.
“He was starting to get better by 3 or 4 o’clock. He was a whole lot better come 10 o’clock,” he said. “Then 3 [a.m.] Saturday, he was exceptionally better,[and by] 6 [a.m.] Saturday they disconnected him from almost everything and he was out walking around coming to see his kids. … Very rapid change once they gave him that medicine.”
The Pulaski County’s emergency services director said last week that the illness could be hantavirus, a disease that causes flu-like symptoms and can sometimes be fatal.
Health department officials have said that there is no evidence of person-to-person transmission or of a public health risk. They also have said that people should not become unduly alarmed if they develop flu-like symptoms.
In two hantavirus cases diagnosed in Virginia — one in 1995 and another 2004 — officials trapped and tested rodents in areas where the sufferers were known to have traveled or worked.
But state health department spokesman Robert Parker said it would be premature to start environmental testing without a confirmed diagnosis.
“Once we have a diagnosis, that will drive whether or not further testing is done,” he wrote in an email Monday.
As the family waits for results from the CDC, friends took to social media to share stories about Julie and Ginger Simpkins.
An impromptu memorial was set up inside Dublin Middle School, where Ginger Simpkins was a student. And Pulaski County Schools Superintendent Thomas Brewster said the teenagers’ classmates wore camouflage on Monday in her remembrance.
Camouflage was fitting because Ginger Simpkins was “definitely a Southwest Virginia girl,” said Jessica Walker, manager of Campus Automotives, a Blacksburg business that is collecting donations for the family.
Walker, whose son attends Dublin Middle School, said the news “hits close to home.”
“It’s really scary because it’s something that could happen to any of us,” she said.
Volunteers who worked with Julie Simpkins at Radford-Fairlawn Daily Bread’s Meals on Wheels program were shocked and saddened to learn that Julie and Ginger Simpkins had died.
On Monday morning, volunteers at the meals on wheels site tried several times to call Julie Simpkins, who organized volunteers and often filled in on delivery routes when needed, said Bob Thomas, a member of the Daily Bread board.
“Nobody was answering the phone,” Thomas said. “Then we put two and two together. We were greatly shocked.”
Julie Simpkins was an “absolutely a lovely lady, very pretty, soft spoken and very much dedicated to getting the work done,” Thomas said.
Julie Simpkins had been coordinating the meals on wheels program for about a year and also served on the Daily Bread board, Thomas said.
The board was expected to meet Monday night.
“We have to somehow step in and do the work she was so good at,” Thomas said.
Back at the Simpkins family home, Tim and Dwayne Simpkins are still trying to understand what happened.
“We’re trying to recover from the loss of a wife and mother and sister and daughter,” Dwayne Simpkins said. “That’s the hard part right now. Health wise, everybody is doing good. … It’s amazing. It’s like living in a fantasy. It’s not real. You still can’t wrap your mind around it to this day. It’s going to take years.”
Staff writer Tonia Moxley contributed to this report.