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No, You Don’t Need to Worry About Bubonic Plague on Top of COVID-19

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It’s completely understandable in the year 2020 to feel like the entire world is out to kill you. The U.S. has been laid low by a pandemic and everything else is equally, well, horrible. So it’s maybe unsurprising that the on top of everything, news outlets all over a fretting about the potential return of a different pandemic: the plague.

Yes, if social media panic and misleading headlines are to be believed, the Bubonic Plague aka the literal BLACK DEATH is back to show this silly coronavirus how a real pandemic does things. The disease, which along with its friends killed about half the population of Europe, was confirmed in China last week and this now a squirrel in Colorado has it!? What is happening?

In short: nothing.

While the Bubonic Plague sounds very scary (and it certainly was for centuries), it’s far more treatable now that we have these cool things called antibiotics, and it’s also way more common than you might think. Now, I’ll be fair, knowing that bubonic plague may be way closer than you thought might not make you feel better about your chances in 2020, but we believe in keeping you informed.

Bubonic plague is caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis (one of three different strains that caused that whole Black Death pandemic). As you probably know, it’s carried by rodents, like rats. Humans (and cats) can get the disease by either eating those animals or via fleas jumping from an infected animal and biting them.

In the middle ages, it was rats that were the vector, but here in the US, bubonic plague mainly carried by squirrels. The squirrel in Colorado is just one of many squirrels all over the country that carry the plague. That’s why Colorado was testing the furry little monsters in the first place because plague squirrels are relatively common. A campground in California was closed down in 2013 after a plague squirrel was discovered. As for China, that case reported there has been linked to the patient easting the meat of an infected marmot (another type of rodent).

Because we know how the plague is transmitted, it’s extremely easy to not get it. I probably don’t need to tell you not to eat your local squirrels, but also don’t feed or pet them, don’t let them close to your food, and most importantly, keep them away from your cats. As mentioned, cats can contract plague if they kill or tangle with an infected animal, so keep an extra close eye on your kitty if you’re in an area where rodents have been known to carry this disease.

Bubonic Plague cases are actually more common than you might think, but still, only a few thousand cases are reported globally each year, and here in the US, there are about seven per year on average. And the good news is that if it’s caught early, the plague is treatable and survivable.

So, please. Don’t read the headlines about another scary virus and jump to any conclusion fueled by xenophobia or anxiety. There are plenty of OTHER terrible things waiting out there in the world to ruin this already terrible year, but the plague isn’t one.

(via: ABC News, image: Pexels)

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.