Bug spray, swollen welts, citronella. It’s mosquito season.
And in a normal year, the health department serving Ohio’s Delaware County would be setting out more than 90 mosquito traps a week – tubs of stagnant water with nets designed to ensnare the little buggers.
But this year, because of COVID-19, the mosquitoes will fly free.
Staffers haven’t set a single trap this year, according to Dustin Kent, the program manager of the residential services unit. Even if they had the time, the state lab that typically would test the insects for viruses that infect humans, such as West Nile, isn’t able to take the samples because it’s too busy with COVID-19.
“It’s frustrating knowing that we can do a more preventative approach,” Kent said. “But we’re stuck reacting.”
In Washtenaw County, Michigan, mosquito samples aren’t being collected because the health department couldn’t hire the summer interns who typically perform the work. In COVID-19 hot spot Houston, a third of mosquito control staffers are working the COVID-19 call center and preparing coronavirus testing materials.
And across Florida, public health officials couldn’t test chicken blood for exposure to mosquito-borne viruses – chickens get bitten by the insects, too, so they can serve as a warning sign – at the overwhelmed state lab until mid-June, a task that typically begins in the spring.
Monitoring and killing mosquitoes is a key public health task used to curb the spread of deadly disease. In recent years, top mosquito-borne illnesses have killed some 200 people annually in the U.S. But that relatively low toll is due in part to the efforts of public health departments to keep the spread at bay, unlike in other countries where hundreds of thousands are sickened and die each year.
“Mosquitoes are the biggest nuisance and pest on this planet. Hands down,” said Ary Faraji, the president of the American Mosquito Control Association, which supports public agencies dedicated to mosquito control. “They are responsible for more deaths than any other organism on this planet, including humans.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stepped in to help and is now running mosquito testing for at least nine states, including Florida, Arizona and the Carolinas, said Roxanne Connelly, entomology and ecology team leader for the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. It is also evaluating human blood samples for mosquito-borne disease for 40 states.
Concerned about the disruptions, the CDC issued a policy brief with the Environmental Protection Agency last week, stressing that mosquito prevention and spraying of insecticides was an essential service that needs to continue even in a national health emergency.