Bat scratches person; more than 40 people are vaccinated for rabies after colonies of creatures camp out at Utah high schools

(Photo courtesy of Thomas B. Szalay) A bat is shown in a net at West High in Salt Lake City on Sept. 20.

Call it the bat invasion.

Thousands of the winged mammals found West High School in Salt Lake City and Layton High School to be quite comfortable in recent weeks as they looked to escape chilly temperatures outside. West High also sits in a bat migratory path, and many are southbound this time of year.

County health officials say nearly 50 people may have come into contact with the bats, many of them students. That declaration triggered a swift response from Salt Lake and Davis counties in case any students may have been exposed to rabies.

“Once you show symptoms [for rabies], it is almost 100 percent fatal,” Davis County Health Department Deputy Director David Spence said. “That’s why it’s taken so seriously.”

One person from West High has reportedly been scratched by a bat, confirmed Nicholas Rupp, Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman. Rupp didn’t know whether the scratched person is an adult or a student, or how the scratch occurred.

That person has received the rabies vaccination, Rupp said, adding that the precautions for a scratch are the same as with other contact.

About 40 students or adults from West High and one Layton student had received vaccinations as of Thursday afternoon, with another Layton student likely taking the precaution soon. Officials were trying to track down another five Layton students who may have come into contact with bats.

Spence said the department has heard reports of students holding the animals, kicking them and placing them on their shoulders. A flyer was being circulated in Davis County, warning people that it’s a federal offense to touch or disturb bats and that they carry diseases.

A vaccine — which includes several shots over two weeks — is administered to anyone who has come into contact with a bat, before any symptoms show up, Rupp said.

About 300 bats were rounded up at West High.

“We don‘t get a lot of rabies exposures in Salt Lake County,” Rupp said.

It’s not common for humans to contract rabies in Davis County either, Spence said, though the county often comes across a handful of rabid bats each year.

At least 1,500 bats congregated in the Layton High auditorium about a week ago, apparently sneaking in through air dampers. They have also occasionally ventured into hallways, and some have been found dead around campus.

The colony of bats has camped out in Layton High’s attic for the past five to 10 years, according to Division of Wildlife Resources biologist Adam Brewerton.

Outside a handful of roamers, the bats used to stay in the attic, where people didn’t come into contact with them, Brewerton said. School officials were aware that bats were there, but the animals hadn’t presented much danger.

“I don‘t know if we were ever really aware that they had a colony of that size up there,” Brewerton said.

In every case at Layton High, students were the ones who encountered the bats, said Chris Williams, Davis School District spokesman.

A company called Animal Removal and Prevention has taken about 1,200 bats from the auditorium this week. The company employs several methods of snagging the bats, including sticky pads connected to poles that reach bats hiding in high places.

The auditorium has been closed since the bat outbreak began, though classes have continued as usual. Williams expected it could be two weeks before the facility reopens.

Bats have caused problems at several Davis County schools, including Layton High, in the past, Williams said. But never have this many been reported.

Bats post up in Salt Lake City annually, but “this year is unusual in just the sheer quantity of bats we‘re seeing around,” Rupp said.

Most commonly contracted by humans through the bite of a rabid animal, the rabies virus attacks the central nervous system, causing brain damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Bats infected with rabies may fly during the day or rest on the ground, but they often show no signs of the virus. If a person has been bitten, health officials advised cleaning the wound immediately with soap and water, then contacting authorities quickly.