Deborah Rogers, who serves as health agent for Georgetown and Newbury, took last Thursday and Friday off to vacation 70 miles away at a cabin in Acton, Maine.
“The good news is, we finally have cell [phone] service up there,” said Rogers, who spent several hours consulting with her boards of health and a mosquito control expert after Eastern equine encephalitis and West Nile virus were found in the region she administers.
After receiving the news on Thursday that a horse in Georgetown had tested positive for EEE after it was euthanized, Rogers worked with Police Chief James Mulligan to put residents on alert while ordering townwide spraying for mosquitoes and canceling outdoor recreational activities.
The Eastern equine encephalitis threat level was raised to critical in Georgetown, and to high in the nearby communities of Boxford, Groveland, Newbury, Rowley, and West Newbury by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
Mulligan, also the Georgetown emergency management director, recorded a bulletin to residents via the town’s Code-RED notification system. To be sure youth groups received the message, police officers checked athletic fields to be sure there was no activity at dusk.
The next day, Rogers received the news that the sample from a mosquito pool in Newbury had tested positive for West Nile virus.
“We’d taken a lot of preliminary precautions” in both towns, she said. “Two weeks before, we’d put it on the websites, so a lot of people were already aware there was a threat, and had already taken precautionary measures.”
This summer, as local health officials battle to keep their residents safe, many have revised their protocols to deal with the threat as swiftly as they can. Even with revisions, sometimes the news of the day has them jumping into action.
In Topsfield, officials also were ready to take action when EEE was detected on Aug. 7 and again on Aug. 21 at Pye Brook Park. Though both finds were mosquito types that usually bite birds, experts warned they also will bite humans.
“We’ve been discussing it for at least two years now,” said Bill Hunt, Board of Health chairman, of the town’s action plan. “We reinstituted spraying when we were warned by the [Department of Public Health] that this could be coming. We prepared for it, and from what I see, other towns prepared for it as well.”
Concerned that the risk from EEE — which according to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a mortality rate of approximately 33 percent and causes significant brain damage in most survivors — would become more widespread, earlier this year the Department of Public Health convened a panel of experts and developed a study that also included recommendations to improve the surveillance and response process.
Each community has its own management plan for mosquitoes, and they are revised annually, said Jack Card, director of the Northeast Massachusetts Mosquito Control and Wetlands Management District, which services most of Essex County along with Winthrop and Revere. “We’re out spraying every night,” Card said.
Jack Morris, chairman of the district’s board of commissioners, said that in most cases, a swift response is the best response.
“Absolutely,” said Morris, director of public health for the Amesbury-Salisbury Health District. “When it comes to EEE, we want to be proactive as well as responsive.”
In Peabody, mosquitoes that tested positive for Eastern equine encephalitis last week were the more dangerous type that’s classified a mammal-biter.
“People are nervous about EEE,” said Sharon Cameron, director of public health in Peabody, who estimated that her office received 130 calls about mosquitoes and spraying in the two-week period prior to last Friday’s report. “That’s about 20 times higher than the number of calls we would normally get on a topic like that.”
Both Peabody and Topsfield ordered spraying for the same night the positive EEE tests were announced last week. Meanwhile, West Nile virus also was discovered last week in Chelmsford, Billerica, Burlington, Medford, Nahant, Reading, Newburyport, Tewksbury, West Newbury, Westford, and Wakefield, and Amesbury.
“It’s apparent that West Nile virus is in mosquitoes in most Eastern Massachusetts cities and towns,” said David Henley, superintendent of the East Middlesex Mosquito Control Project, which services Malden, Medford, Melrose, North Reading, Reading, Wakefield, Winchester, and many communities west of Boston.
Tim Deschamps, executive director of the Central Mass. Mosquito Control Project, noted that the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, established in 1946, already has cited this as one of the worst years in its history for West Nile virus. About one in 150 people infected will develop severe illness that can include coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, vision loss, numbness, and paralysis. These symptoms may last several weeks, and neurological effects may be permanent, according to the agency.
Statewide as of Aug. 24, there have been 153 positive mosquito pool tests for West Nile virus, three human cases, and one horse. For Eastern equine encephalitis, in addition to the horse in Georgetown, it was discovered in an alpaca in Halifax, and in 129 mosquito samples. Traditionally found more often on the South Shore, EEE this year has spread to the northeast region, with samples also found in Billerica, Hamilton, Haverhill, and Lynnfield.
While public health officials have scrambled to order spraying, increased surveillance, and canceled outdoor sporting and social events at prime times for mosquito activity, they also stress personal precautions. Individuals are advised to follow state recommendations of using mosquito repellent with DEET, wearing long pants and sleeves, and removing standing water on their property.
“People should always take precautions, especially when they’re out at dusk and dawn,” Cameron said.