BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - While COVID-19 is dominating the news, there’s another cause for concern in South Mississippi that also won’t go away. And, once again, it has taken the life of a Coast resident.
Jim Willoz of Biloxi was living the dream at 91.
“He fished every day almost of his life,” said his daughter Desiree Drake. “And just had a good time on the Coast. He relished living there and enjoyed it.”
In early July, he bought shrimp fresh off the boat at the Pass Christian harbor, as he often did.
He picked the shrimp with his daughter, Desiree Drake.
That weekend, he became sick, and he went to the hospital.
“They were treating him for peripheral artery disease, even though we knew he did not have that,” she said. “And then, 10 hours later, he was septic. And so, they realized at that point he had bacteria in his bloodstream that was life-threatening. And he died 12 hours later.”
It was Vibrio vulnificus.
“I thought they had the wrong person that they were telling me about,” Drake said. “I didn’t realize at all that I was bringing him there and wouldn’t see him again after that visit.”
She knew he was vulnerable because of his age and after recently recovering from cancer, but it still was a shock.
“We were aware of Vibrio. We thought whenever he’d go out fishing, he needed to bandage himself and not get exposed to too much to the water,” she said. “We understood that in warmer months that that could be the case. Picking shrimp? Had no idea.”
Now she wants to see more public warnings, more signage, but that may not be likely.
The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality has information online but doesn’t monitor or post warnings for Vibrio because it occurs naturally and is not specific to pollution sources.
“Let the public be educated and make informed decisions whether they want to bring their families and themselves out for exposure,” Drake said.
She also wants hospitals to be better prepared to handle these cases with a triage approach.
“There should be a line of questions and then, from there, testing quickly,” she said. “Because those vital hours were lost for my father.”
Memorial Hospital infectious disease specialist Dr. Nicholas Conger said communication is vital from both patients and clinicians.
“If you think you have an infection developing, go to a doctor or a health care professional immediately and tell them that you had exposure to ocean water or back bay water,” he said. “Because if they don’t ask and you don’t tell them, they won’t know to give you the right antibiotics to cover Vibrio.”
Conger added that another sign of vibrio infection is pain that is disproportionately bigger than the infection site.
Vibrio is no match to COVID-19 in the numbers of cases. There have been only 16 statewide so far this year, with Harrison County leading the way with five cases.
“Coronavirus is prevalent right now,” Drake said. “I realize, I understand that, but this is also a killer, and it’s affecting people as we speak.”
So far, Willoz’s death is the only one recorded. For his daughter, it’s the one that counts.
“We had a lot of fun still in store,” she said, crying. “That’s not going to happen now.”
The summer months are when Vibrio is at its worst. It can be in the water and found on shellfish like oysters and shrimp. The most vulnerable to vibrio are those with compromised immune systems.