Chickenpox hits Royals clubhouse; Kelvin Herrera, Alex Rios infected

As he pondered how to handle a health crisis facing
his baseball team, Ned Yost reached out this past weekend to his mother.
Several Royals also contacted their families, all asking some version of a
question they had not pondered since childhood: Mom, did I ever have the

The answer became imperative, at the behest of the
Royals training staff, as the team dealt with an outbreak as they completed a weekend
series against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Royals outfielder Alex Rios and All-Star reliever Kelvin Herrera have both been
infected with the virus and could miss at least two weeks of action, team
officials told The Star.

Rios and Herrera each left the team over the weekend
and flew to Kansas City before the series ended. An examination on Monday of
both players confirmed the diagnosis, a team official said.

Team officials are expected to address the situation
before Tuesday’s game against the Tigers. The Royals believe the infections are
limited to only Herrera and Rios. The most at-risk players are those from
countries in Latin America, where the chances of childhood inoculation are
lower, experts say.

Even in the hothouse of a major-league clubhouse,
where players mingle in close quarters for upwards of nine months, the
situation is unusual. Members of the Royals front office and big-league staff
greeted the news with incredulity. Though the scenario sounds more amusing than
worrisome _ a potential World Series contender stricken by a children’s illness
_ the reality is far more insidious, given the severity of the virus when
adults catch it.

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The uncertainty with Rios has already affected the
team’s roster. Unable to guarantee his return this season, the Royals acquired
Atlanta outfielder Jonny Gomes on Monday evening for a minor-league infielder.
The club hopes the influx of fresh arms brought by September roster expansion
can compensate for Herrera’s absence.

The chickenpox virus spreads through the air or
through bodily contact. The symptoms are well-known to parents, as itchy
blisters overrun the skin and the body grapples with fatigue and fever.
Chickenpox manifests in the same way for grown-ups, only patients suffer more
and face complications such as pneumonia and brain infections, experts say.

“For adults who get chickenpox, it tends to be
much more severe,” said Rafael Harpaz, a medical epidemiologist from the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Harpaz indicated the rate for hospitalization because
of the infection is much higher once the patients reach adolescence.

“A child might have a couple hundred
lesions,” Harpaz said. “An adult might have over 500. The likelihood
that they’ll end up getting pneumonia is much higher. That’s pretty rare in
children. So there’s a number of complications that are more common in adults
than in children.”

Even with the infections limited to only two players,
the Royals must stay vigilant, experts say. After exposure to the virus,
victims can still take up to three weeks to display symptoms.

“If you’re exposed on day zero, the realistic
expectation is the earliest you’ll get the disease is day seven,” said
Aaron Glatt, a physician specializing in infectious diseases and a spokesman
for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. “So they actually need to
look for symptoms from day seven after exposure to day 21 after exposure.
That’s when the disease manifests after you get it.”

The Royals think Rios was the first player infected.
Yost scratched him from Saturday’s lineup about an hour before the game began.
The team decided to send him home, but felt uncomfortable putting him on a
commercial flight. So they chartered a private jet to fly Rios to Kansas City.

Shortly after Rios’ plane took off on Sunday, Herrera
reported similar symptoms upon his arrival to the clubhouse. The training staff
quarantined him, and the club repeated the charter process for a second time.

It is unclear how Rios contracted the virus. Doctors
did not pioneer a vaccination until 1996, but in general, experts say when
after a person contracts chickenpox, the infection does not return. Most
Americans experience this as children.

Harpaz, the expert from the CDC, suggested that
“for reasons that are not well-understood,” people raised in
Caribbean climates are often more susceptible to the chickenpox as adults in
America. Rios grew up in Puerto Rico. Herrera grew up in the Dominican

“One of the main theories is that the virus just
doesn’t last as long in tropical conditions,” Harpaz said. “So the
likelihood of you catching it is enough reduced to make it that less

In the wake of the infections, trainer Nick Kenney
canvassed the club asking players about their history with the chickenpox. The
behavior of the team matches the advice of experts.

“They need to make sure that everybody else on
their team is immune, either having had chickenpox before, or having gotten the
vaccine,” Harpaz said. “And they should clearly quarantine the person
who is infectious from the others.”