Parts of Lake Tahoe close after chipmunks test positive for plague

Officials are closing off some areas on the south shore of Lake Tahoe after some chipmunks tested positive for plague, an infectious disease that affects both humans and other mammals.

The U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit announced that based on the positive plague tests and planned Vector Control treatments, the Taylor Creek Visitor Center, Kiva Beach, and their respective parking areas will be closed for six days.

However, the Tallac Site or Kiva Picnic parking area will remain open as staff and volunteers will be located at the Tallac Historic Site.

Image Credit: Lara Red / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Lara Red / Shutterstock

What is plague?

Plague is an infectious disease caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, which commonly infects wild rodents, including ground squirrels and chipmunks. In some cases, humans, cats, and other animals can become infected if they live in or visit areas where wild rodents,  naturally infected with the plague, are present.

In California, the most common way plague is transmitted to humans is when they are bitten by infected fleas that live on wild rodents or in rodent burrows in the ground.

Human cases of plague are rare. The El Dorado County Public Health Office notes that plague naturally occurs in many parts of California, including higher elevation or mountainous areas. When in these areas, residents are advised to take caution.

Plague can cause a wide range of signs and symptoms, depending on how the patient was exposed to the bacteria.

The first type is the bubonic plague, wherein patients develop the sudden onset of fever, chills, headache, weakness, and swollen lymph nodes called buboes. This type of plague occurs through flea bites. The bacteria usually replicate in the lymph nodes closest to the entry point and spread to the other parts of the body.

Septicemic plague, meanwhile, causes fever, chills, extreme weakness, stomach ache, shock, and bleeding into the skin and organs. In this type of plague, the skin and tissues may turn black and die.

Lastly, pneumonic plague causes fever, headache, fatigue, and pneumonia, characterized by shortness of breath, cough, chest pain, and bloody or watery mucus secretions. This results from the inhalation of infected droplets. It is the most severe form of plague and can spread from person to person.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that over 80 percent of U.S. plague cases have been bubonic or acquired from bites from infected fleas. In recent decades, about seven human plague cases have been reported each year.

People of all ages are at risk of plague, though 50 percent of cases occur in people ages 12 to 45 years.

Preventing plague in humans

Plague can be prevented by avoiding contact with these rodents and their fleas, and by keeping pets away from rodents and their burrows.  Human cases of plague are rare,” The U.S. Forest Service advises.

They advise people not to feed squirrels, chipmunks, and other wild rodents, never touch sick, injured, or dead rodents, not to camp or sleep near animal burrows, wear long pants tucked into boots and spray insect repellent on sucks to reduce exposure to fleas, and leave pets at home.

Further, pets should be kept on a leash to avoid approaching sick or dead rodents and burrows.

If someone becomes sick after visiting a plague-prone area, they should immediately call their healthcare provider.

Plague can be treated with antibiotics if detected early.

Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Written by

Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Angela is a nurse by profession and a writer by heart. She graduated with honors (Cum Laude) for her Bachelor of Nursing degree at the University of Baguio, Philippines. She is currently completing her Master's Degree where she specialized in Maternal and Child Nursing and worked as a clinical instructor and educator in the School of Nursing at the University of Baguio.


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