GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK - Grand Canyon officials are looking into whether contaminated water may be to blame after a spike in gastrointestinal illness among visitors to the park, specifically areas along the Colorado River.
The National Park Service reported 118 confirmed cases as of June 10th, with many people experiencing symptoms that are consistent with norovirus.
Grand Canyon National Park put out a gastrointestinal illness alert on May 20th while also advising visitors against using water from the nearby Colorado River, side streams, pools and springs.
The alert noted, "There may have been a time when it was safe to use such sources, but no longer. Any untreated water has the potential to cause illness if it is not properly and carefully disinfected."
Joelle Baird, public affairs specialist with the Grand Canyon National Park Service, told Fox News Digital that officials are trying to pinpoint the source of the outbreak.
"We have a cooperative with NPS Office of Public Healthy, Coconino County Health and Human Services and the CDC all working together to try to understand the disease pathway and looking in particular at river and backcountry trips along the Colorado River," Baird said on Thursday. "That’s been the primary focus."
Kristi Key of Arizona, an avid hiker, described how she summoned a rescue helicopter in mid-May after she came across other hikers who fell ill on the Boucher Trail. (Kristine Rene Key)
She said the first alerts went out to the public in early May.
"Norovirus is highly contagious — and once present, it can spread quickly among participants," she said.
Since "norovirus can be transmitted through water, we are advising all backpackers to not just filter their water but to use a chemical treatment or boil the water."
Kristi Key of Arizona, an avid hiker who visits the park regularly, recounted to Fox News Digital how she recently helped summon a rescue helicopter after she saw a hiker on the Boucher Trail who was "violently vomiting."
"I was on a solo hike on Boucher Trail, which is a pretty rugged trail," she said, noting she has hiked it several times.
A hiker who took ill recently in the Grand Canyon is shown lying down here. (Kristine Rene Key)
On May 14, 2022, she said she "got about four miles in when I came across a hiker looking a little distressed," she told Fox News Digital.
"It’s not unusual [for people] to look distressed or exhausted hiking out of the canyon — so I didn’t think much of it, but I asked if he was OK and I kept going."
Key added that she then "ran into another guy behind him — and he was asking how the trail was on the way out, and I told him it’s not easy. He said he had a couple of people that were pretty sick and he wanted to know how rough it would be for them."
"At that point," said Key, "it was starting to get really hot. I had my Garmin [smartwatch] with me and I asked him if he needed me to hit the SOS button, which alerts Garmin and hooks you up with a rescue if needed, because there is no cell service on the trail."
The individual said no, she noted — and "said he’d let me know if they needed it. So I continued, and then I ran into two more hikers. They were with the two guys that I had passed earlier on the trail."
Hiker Kristi Key of Arizona shared a recent dramatic rescue story with Fox News Digital. One of the guys she ran into during a hike in mid-May "kept violently throwing up," she said. (Kristine Rene Key)
"One was lying down under a tree," she said.
The other one "was throwing up, so I told them I could get them rescued but they said no, they’d rest and cool off and said if they needed me they’d find me."
Key said she went on her way for about an hour — and "then started making my way back. I saw the guys again and that’s when they asked if I could summon that rescue. They didn’t have much water left, and it was still quite a ways back out of the canyon. One of the guys kept violently throwing up."
Key said she used her Garmin to send an alert and heard back "almost immediately."
Kristi Key is shown giving the thumbs-up once help arrived in the canyon for the sick hikers she encountered during her time there. (Kristine Rene Key)
"One of the Grand Canyon search and rescue rangers contacted me. I told him I was with two hikers who were very sick, one violently vomiting. The ranger could see exactly where I was, and he asked me to stay with the hikers. He told me it would take a few hours to get to us."
So — the group waited, she said. "And about three for four hours later, a helicopter arrived."
Key said the helicopter operator came up to her and shook her hand.
"He said, ‘Thank you for doing this and staying with them.’ The ranger mentioned that norovirus was going around the village — they think that’s what it is."
Ill hikers are rescued by a ranger helicopter in the Grand Canyon in mid-May. (Kristine Rene Key)
And while the group was on the shuttle back to their vehicles, said Key, "the shuttle driver mentioned the numerous cases of norovirus going around. A lady on the shuttle also said there was another group of hikers that got sick on the same trail, and several had to be rescued."
Key told Fox News Digital, "When I posted about this on Facebook, I started getting all these people messaging me, that their friends got sick on the same route. I was just hearing all these stories about people getting sick all within weeks of each other. Just strange that it seemed like everyone I talked to were only sick after hiking this trail."
Another scene in the Grand Canyon in mid-May, when Kristi Key helped rescue hikers who had been struck ill. (Kristine Rene Key)
She added, "I am not 100% convinced it is norovirus. I wondered if it could be the creek nearby."
She also said, "I am glad I was there. In the canyon, you check on people."
"My friends call me ‘canyon mom' because I always ask people, ‘Where is your water?’ or ‘Are you wearing sunscreen?’ Especially the young ones who look strong — they always come out of the trail asking for water."
Key said, "I don’t question anyone’s ability, but you read about strong hikers dying because of a lack of water and the heat."