DANGER IN THE DUST: Valley Fever in a time of coronavirus

The pandemic isn’t the only danger with Covid-like symptoms
Published: Aug. 23, 2021 at 6:55 PM MST
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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second story from our new podcast series titled Danger In The Dust. You can read our first piece, about a Valley Fever vaccine, HERE.

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - If you’ve lived in our beautiful part of the desert for a while, chances are, you’ve been exposed to Valley Fever. That’s because spores from fungi that live in our Arizona dirt and dust cause this regional illness.

“As I always tell my patients, you can’t live in a bubble. You live here,” said Dr. Fariba Donovan, with the Valley Fever Center for Excellence in Tucson. “So, the important thing is too look for the symptoms, and if it happens, ask for help.”

Dr. Donovan says it’s crucial, now more than ever, for people with symptoms to get tested for Valley Fever, because the symptoms are so similar to COVID-19. In fact, a third of all pneumonia cases in Valley Fever endemic areas, like Southern Arizona, are due to Valley Fever.

“If you look at the symptoms: cough, chest pain, fever, joint pain, all of these are the same as you have or anyone says they have with COVID,” Dr. Donovan said.

She says she has patients who got multiple negative tests for COVID before finally getting a Valley Fever, and finding out that’s what was making them sick. When coronavirus took center stage, Valley Fever testing dropped.

That, along with a very dry 2020, are reasons Dr. Donovan expects cases to double this year. She wants patients and doctors alike to consider the possibility of Valley Fever.

“Because of the overlap, because of the pandemic, everybody thought about Covid, but it doesn’t mean Valley Fever goes away,” said Donovan.

No one knows that better than Jeff Winebrenner, a young husband and father of two, changed forever by those spores in the dust.

“I got sick from dust,” said Winebrenner. “What is essentially dust. I didn’t do anything wrong, I didn’t have unprotected sex, I didn’t do anything. I breathed air and that got me really sick.”

Of those infected with Valley Fever, 60% never even know they have it. Many who do get sick don’t even need medication. But for a rare few, like Winebrenner, it can be devastating - a lifelong fight, costing an estimated million dollars.

“I ended up with disseminated Cocci Meningitis, which is essentially Valley Fever that’s moved from your lungs to different parts of your body. mine just happened to be in my brain and spinal fluid. So, that made things interesting,” said Winebrenner.

He had just moved here for a teaching job, and thinks he breathed the spores at a pumpkin patch.

“You don’t have to try very hard to get it. So, when the wind blows, that dust travels, and you breathe it, and...yikes. One more crazy thing to worry about,” said Winebrenner.

He’s been sick on and off ever since, making steady work impossible. But, he’s excited to be part of a clinical trial starting soon. Jeff believes it could be a game changer. In the meantime, he’s focusing on his family.

“That’s going to be my mission in life is to be a good dad until we can get this cured and I can get in there and start swinging again,” he said.

For comprehensive information on Valley fever – check out our brand new podcast “Danger In the Dust,” available now in the Apple Podcasts app, iTunes store or Google Podcasts app. Just search for “KOLD News 13” and click “Danger in the Dust.”

We have three episodes available now, with many more to come. Be sure to hit that ‘subscribe’ button to get updates when new episodes go live.

Copyright 2021 KOLD News 13. All rights reserved.