EEE threat is early
Southeastern Mass. towns launch mosquito precautions
RAYNHAM — Aileen Griffith and her 17-year-old daughter, Leslie, picked the most punishing time of day to go power-walking.
Under a blaring noontime sun Saturday, with temperatures soaring into the 90s, they strode down one of the town’s main roads, wiping away sweat beading above their sunglasses.
It was far too toasty for their taste, but cooler walks at dawn or dusk are out of the question, they said.
The reason: Eastern equine encephalitis.
At sunset, “the mosquitoes are wicked bad around here,” said Leslie.
“It’s too much of a risk to go out in the evening,” said Aileen.
This year, reports of mammal-biting mosquitoes carrying Eastern equine encephalitis have come earlier than anyone could remember: On Wednesday, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health announced that mosquitoes collected earlier in the week in Easton were found to be carrying the virus. On Thursday, another sample from Carver came back positive.
State officials have listed Easton, Raynham, and Taunton as being at high risk for the virus, and residents in Southeastern Massachusetts are on edge as they reschedule evening activities, double up on bug spray, and clamor for town and state officials to spray their neighborhoods.
Their fears are not unfounded: Last year, 80-year-old Martin Newfield of Raynham died less than two weeks after contracting the virus.
Catherine Brown, the state public health veterinarian, explained that two types of mosquitoes carry the virus. The species that bites birds is often discovered carrying the virus early in the summer, she said. But the kind that targets mammals, including humans, is not typically found with the virus until about July 25.
The discovery of mammal-biting insects carrying the virus in the second week of July, she said, is a cause for concern.
Anthony Texeira, superintendent of the Plymouth County Mosquito Control Project, agreed that the early onset was worrisome.
“The bird-biters, you can understand — they’re the ones we’d see this early,” Texeira said. “But when there’s an abundance of the mammal-biters, that makes me very nervous.”
In recent years, town leaders in Southeastern Massachusetts pushed the state government to conduct expensive aerial spraying preemptively, before the first batch of virus-carrying mosquitoes was recorded. Brown said Friday that Department of Public Health officials are still considering when to launch this summer’s round of aerial sprays.
For now, communities are left to manage the problem by providing ground-level mosquito spraying from trucks, which residents can request for their home and neighborhood.
“Yesterday, we received over 500 calls,” Stephen Burns, acting superintendent of the Bristol County Mosquito Control Project, said on Friday. “The phone didn’t stop ringing all day.”
One of those calls probably came from Eva Arruda, 88, of Taunton, who said she promptly called Burns’s office when she heard about the infected mosquitoes in Easton and requested that her house be sprayed.
She knows she is not a likely candidate to get infected — “I don’t sit around in my yard,” she explained while buying fresh corn from a Raynham vegetable stand Saturday morning — but she doesn’t want to take any chances.
Last year, after Newfield’s death, municipalities pointed fingers at the state government for failing to conduct aerial sprays early in the season. At that time, Alfred DeMaria, an epidemiologist at the Department of Public Health, said there is no evidence that aerial spraying is more effective than ground spraying, and each aerial spraying costs the state about $1 million.
Joe Pacheco, chairman of Raynham’s Board of Selectmen and vice chairman of its Board of Health, said on Sunday that the early appearance of the virus-infected insects will put a burden on cash-strapped county mosquito control projects and run the risk that the agency’s budget for spraying will run out before the end of the season, leaving residents without protection.
Aerial spraying, he said, would relieve some of that burden from the county mosquito control projects.
“It’s a matter of public health,” Pacheco said. “The governor should not be putting a price tag on public health. That’s just not acceptable.”
Towns designated with a high risk level for the virus are forbidden to hold activities in the evening, when mosquitoes are out in force. Elizabeth Francis, director of the Raynham Department of Parks and Recreation, said town officials are trying their best to reschedule evening sports activities to daytime hours rather than cancel them.
Several youth sports and recreation leagues in the region are currently still playing outdoors despite the scare. In the past, leagues have had to cancel or reschedule games because of EEE, but coaches in the area said they haven’t had any related cancellations this season.
Before the 6 p.m. South Shore Summer Softball League games, parents spray their children with insect repellent.
“It’s something that’s mandatory in their bags — bug repellent at all times,” said Mike Melchionda, the coach of the Marshfield Rams in the league. “My bag is loaded with it. I have four or five different types right now.”
Residents planning on attending Raynham’s alfresco summer concert series won’t be able to listen to the music of Jumpin’ Juba, Dale and the Duds, and the Toe Jam Puppet Band under the stars. The series is being moved indoors.
“If you’ve lived in the community for the last 10 years, you come to expect it,” Francis said. “We’ve kind of been dealing with this problem for a while now.”
But even with precautions, some residents can’t help but worry.
James Christoforo, 40, said that with three children and two dogs, his family spends a significant amount of time outdoors in Raynham. Because of the mosquitoes, they’ve taken to slathering themselves with bug spray, and they head inside by 4 p.m.
“I know that the likelihood is pretty low, mathematically,” Christoforo said, “but the consequences are quite serious.”
Taking a pause in their noontime walk in Raynham Saturday, the Griffiths said the mosquitoes have interrupted other patterns in daily life: Their house gets poor cellphone reception, so they often step into the driveway to make calls. Now, they’ll send a text message insteadin order to spend less time outdoors.
And because the family lives near a wooded area, Aileen Griffiths said, she is considering buying an insect fogger to keep the mosquitoes at bay during family cookouts.
“I don’t want to be fearing for my life just to make s’mores,” she said.