Outside help coming to Hillsborough Animal Shelter, administrators deny Parvovirus outbreak

TAMPA, Fla. - Hillsborough County administrators held a news conference Wednesday afternoon to address illness within the animal shelter. They deny an outbreak, but plan to bring in outside help to manage the deadly Parvovirus.

ABC Action News first broke news of the highly contagious virus on Monday.  County administration claimed they contained it, but ABC Action News obtained records that show at least 12 cases of Parvovirus infections inside HCAS over the last two weeks. The dogs were treated or housed in five different wings.

According to Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill, HCAS has had 45 percent fewer Parvovirus cases between August 2012 and July 2013 than the same time period the year prior.

"I want to make sure that it's very clear that rumors of an outbreak are unfounded," Merrill said.

Inside sources, who spoke anonymously for fear of losing their jobs, point to a concentration of cases over the last two weeks, which they believe presents more of a concern.

One dog, a year-old Husky named "Venus", tested positive for parvo, but was returned to her kennel despite having bloody diarrhea.

She was found dead the next morning.

Venus arrived at HCAS about a month ago. Because the virus incubation period ranges from 10-14 days, veterinarians tell ABC Action News it is likely she contracted the highly contagious disease inside the shelter.

It is unclear why she waited so long for adoption, despite several applications from interested adopters.

Additionally, ABC Action News alerted management to the case of Brittany and Cole Calhoun, who recently adopted two 4-month-old German Shepherd mix puppies from HCAS, only one of which survived. "Sulley" died of parvo Sunday evening. His sister, "Sasha" is now fighting the virus.

The couple wishes they'd been notified of the virus' presence when they adopted so they could have moved more quickly with his medical care.

"If we had started him even one day earlier, it might've made all the difference," Brittany said.

Staff and volunteers also expressed concern to ABC Action News about mismanagement of the disease and a lack of communication. They report walking from kennel to kennel without taking proper precautions because they were unaware of the virus.

"I know and feel confident that staff were aware of parvo cases in the shelter," HCAS Director Ian Hallett said. "First thing we've done, I'll check the records for communications about parvo in the past."

Hallett spoke for the first time Wednesday since ABC Action News made an initial request for information Friday evening. Prior to the news conference, only Communication Department officials have released statements.

Merrill spoke of a desire to save more animal lives and their commitment to making HCAS a safe place to adopt.

They plan to bring in outside resources, ranging from the University of Florida to Hillsborough County Fire Rescue. UF veterinarians will perform interviews with staff members during which they can remain anonymous.

Additionally, enforcement officers that deal in areas like animal cruelty investigations will move to code enforcement. Merrill told reporters the shift will allow for more time and attention to focus on the shelter itself.

HCAS received an onslaught of criticism from volunteers at a recent BOCC meeting, where they spoke of crowded conditions, animals waiting weeks for adoption, and a lack of communication.

Earlier this year, county commissioners voted to support the "Be The Way Home" program, an effort to reduce euthanasia rates. Hallett blames a learning curve for an increase in illness at the shelter, but also cites 2,000 more lives saved.

Commissioner Kevin Beckner announced his support for the termination of any employee who intentionally sabotages the program or tries to derail its implementation.

"If we can improve our services, we want to have that input. We're just not going to tolerate deliberate actions of sabotage," Beckner said.

Wednesday morning, Rachel Jorgensen returned to the shelter where she adopted "Karma", a 2-month old puppy recovering from parvo. HCAS refunded her adoption fee and plans to help pay for some medical costs.

Just yesterday, Jorgensen said, an HCAS employee told her Karma's litter was an isolated case. She wishes she'd known more about the extent of the virus when she adopted.

"At least stop adoptions until those dogs have been tested because it's an awful, awful virus and it happened overnight," she said.

Security cameras have been added inside the shelter to monitor staff behavior, according to administration, in an effort to make sure employees and volunteers are following sanitation protocol.

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