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Maine officials confirm first Powassan virus death of 2023

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Officials in Maine have confirmed the first fatal case of the Powassan virus disease in 2023. 

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday they found the tick-borne illness in an adult resident from Sagadahoc County. Robert J. Weymouth, 58, of Portland, was identified as the person who died after complications with the virus, according to a local obituary. He developed neurological symptoms and died in the hospital after becoming infected, likely in the state, according to the Maine CDC. 

His widow, Annemarie Weymouth, is now warning others about protecting themselves from the illness. 

“He was in there, but he couldn’t move his body. He could point to words on a board. He pointed to ‘scared,’ ‘afraid,’ ‘frustrated,'” Weymouth told a local station in Maine.

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A tick on a blade of grass
An adult deer tick on a blade of grass.

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How do you get Powassan virus?

The Powassan virus can be transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected deer tick or woodchuck tick, health officials said. The arachnids can be active any time the temperature is above freezing, but they’re mostly active in the spring, summer and fall. 

What are the symptoms of Powassan virus?

Many who are infected with the virus do not exhibit symptoms, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the agency said for those who develop symptoms, from the time of the tick bite to feeling unwell can range from one week to one month. 

Symptoms can include fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion, seizures or even memory loss, according to the Maine CDC. More serious cases could include neurologic problems such as brain or spinal cord inflammation, and about 10% of people with severe disease die, health officials said. 

Powassan virus is not treatable. Health officials encourage anyone whose experiences symptoms after a bite to contact their health care provider. 

Cases of Powassan are rare in the U.S., with about 25 cases reported each year since 2015, according to the Maine CDC. Maine has identified 15 since 2015, including four in 2022. Two of the individuals who contracted Powassan in 2022 died of the illness, making Weymouth’s death the third Powassan death in Maine since 2015. 

How can you protect yourself?

Some ways you can avoid tick-borne diseases — which also include Lyme disease — when spending time outdoors include wearing insect repellent with DEET, tucking your pants into your socks, avoiding tall grass, showering immediately after being outside and having someone check your body for ticks.

And if you find one, time is of the essence. 

“Don’t wait to have it removed,” Bryon Backenson, an assistant professor at the University of Albany School of Public Health, told CBS News in April. “With a fine-point pair of tweezers, get as close to the skin as you possibly can and gently and firmly pull straight up and that tick will pop right out.”

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