Public Health Possibly Endangered at Fort Carson by 'Parrot Fever' Last Year: Report

On-post housing at Fort Carson, Colo. Residents have complained of unhygienic and unhealthy conditions in privately managed military housing. A study published recently found, however, that the chronic illness of a woman who lives on the base might be due to her pet cockatiel, not poor housing conditions. (U.S. Army photo)
Stars and Stripes | By Nancy Montgomery

Authorities at Fort Carson potentially exposed the community to "parrot fever" when they failed to replace the carpeting in a privatized base home after a spouse contracted the highly contagious illness, a military medical report said.

The 24-year-old wife of a junior-enlisted soldier at the Colorado Army base likely contracted the illness from a cockatiel she'd raised from a chick, last month's Medical Surveillance Monthly Report said.

The report blamed Balfour Beatty Communities, a private company that came under congressional scrutiny along with other base housing providers earlier this year after reports of squalid homes and numerous servicemember complaints surfaced throughout the military.

However, a company spokeswoman said they never were informed of any public health concerns by the Fort Carson health department, the garrison, the resident or anyone else.

The report described the spouse's four trips to the emergency room over three weeks in February 2018 for fever, diarrhea, vomiting, a persistent cough, dizziness, trouble breathing and respiratory failure. After being admitted to the hospital she was diagnosed with psittacosis pneumonia.

Psittacosis is popularly known as parrot fever because it is transmitted from birds to humans.

Infections in humans can range from asymptomatic to life-threatening. The bacterium in an environment is considered infectious for "many months."

"The Fort Carson Department of Environmental Health (EH) was consulted to discuss the ramifications of an infected bird located in on-post housing," the report said.

The department issued "strong recommendations" for replacing the carpeting as part of decontaminating the home.

But the soldier and his wife couldn't afford to do it and Balfour Beatty refused to do it without payment, the report said.

"The fact that the patient lived in on-post privatized housing posed a barrier to best public health practice," the report said. "Despite the strong recommendations from Fort Carson health department, the private housing company refused to replace the carpeting of the patient's home unless paid for by the patient."

The "lack of adherence to the Fort Carson public health recommendations potentially left the patient and those that came in contact with her bird at potential risk for infection," it said.

There was a request for carpet replacement for what was described as damage by a pet bird, and the residents were told they'd have to pay, Balfour Beatty spokeswoman Maureen Omrod said.

Base officials didn't say there was a public health risk, she said.

"If we were asked or told by the command that this had to be done, we would have done it," Omrod said.

Fort Carson likewise seemed in the dark about the public health concerns, despite being sent a link to the medical journal article.

"When a resident enters into a lease agreement for a rental unit and they have a pet, under the terms of the agreement, it is their responsibility to cover any damage caused by their pet," a base spokeswoman wrote in an email before referring Stars and Stripes to the company.

Although a lab test indicated the woman had likely been infected with psittacosis, the diagnosis was not confirmed. That was partly because the couple could not afford having the cockatiel evaluated by the avian specialist veterinarian in Colorado Springs.

Omrod noted that the Army has services for lower-income families and it was strange that in the face of public health concerns there was no help to pay for the bird testing.

The costs to have the bird tested and replace the carpeting would have been minimal compared to the costs of "multiple visits to the (emergency room) and the subsequent hospitalization of the patient," the report said.

The woman's condition improved over the next few months, although she continued to have a chronic cough and nosebleeds, it said. In the summer of 2018 she visited the ER two more times.

Housing at Fort Carson is among 56 military housing communities across the U.S. owned by Balfour Betty, which is registered in England and reported profits of 135 million pounds, or about $165 million, in the first half of this year.

In February, top Army officials promised to renegotiate housing contracts with companies operating base housing. They also ordered tens of thousands of homes tested for toxins and said they would hold commanders responsible for ensuring decent housing for base residents.