Wednesday morning, students in Georgetown schools got to go outside.
“In about 30 minutes, I’m going to be the happiest guy in America,” joked Guy Prescott, dean of students at Georgetown Middle/High School, referring to the lunch period scheduled that day. “Middle school lunches can be very loud. The kids need to move around a little bit. Everybody’s been cooped up for a month and a half.”
Around the region last week, athletic and recreation directors and others were rescheduling events that had previously been moved or rescheduled because of concerns about Eastern equine encephalitis, a potentially fatal disease spread by mosquitoes. Several communities had instituted bans on public outdoor activities, generally during the peak mosquito hours from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m.
With a hard frost that came in late on Oct. 12 into Oct. 13, the Department of Public Health and National Weather Service deemed the risk of EEE and West Nile virus — which is also potentially fatal to humans — to be virtually eliminated in all areas of the state except for Suffolk County and the Cape and islands.
“Once a hard frost has occurred, the risk of EEE becomes negligible, though some small risk for WNV may continue as a few Culex species mosquitoes will move indoors to overwinter,” Dr. Catherine Brown, state public health veterinarian, said via e-mail. “Therefore, rare cases of WNV have been identified even after a hard frost.”
Georgetown’s ban was the most restrictive in the region, including outdoor activities at any time of day involving schools. Following reports of fatal cases of EEE, first a horse and then a 76-year-old man, the schools were keeping students inside for lunch and recess, all home athletic games were played on away fields, and practices were moved to Haverhill.
“Halloween was going to be canceled,” Prescott said.
Instead, Georgetown High athletic director Chris DiFranco and his counterparts around the region were on the phone this week trying to bring home games back to their high schools, and in some cases putting night games back on the schedule.
“We should be back to our regular schedule,” said Max Schenk, manager of environmental health services for the Health Department in Gloucester, one of those towns that lifted its ban.
“Most of the schools in our league are under one of these bans,” Prescott said.
According to the Department of Public Health website, there have been seven human cases of EEE reported in the state thus far in 2012, including two in Essex County, the man in Georgetown, and a 63-year-old woman from Amesbury who died in September.
The Department of Public Health declared some communities at critical risk and others at high risk following various EEE-related findings, including human or horse cases. Amesbury, Essex, Georgetown, Hamilton, Haverhill, and Merrimac were deemed critical, while several other communities were classified as high-risk for mosquito-borne viruses on a map provided by the department.
While most communities that were classified as critical have lifted the ban on outdoor activities, one reacted with more caution. In Hamilton, the Boards of Health opted to keep its 5 p.m. outdoor public activities bans in effect after a horse was diagnosed with EEE Sept. 23. Wenham has continued a similar ban.
Lindle Willnow, chairman of the Hamilton Board of Health, said members made their decision after consulting with the Department of Public Health, the National Weather Service, and the Northeast Massachusetts Mosquito Control & Wetlands Management District.
He said that when the decision was made to start the ban, the definition of a hard frost that the board used was temperatures below 28 degrees for four hours.
“That did not occur,” said Willnow, who noted that weather observations from Beverly Airport registered one hour at 29 degrees, one at 31 degrees, and one at 32 degrees.
Maintaining the ban would mean that the town’s annual Pumpkinfest, a family-friendly event scheduled for yesterday that usually includes the afternoon carving and night-time lighting of jack-o-lanterns at Patton Park followed by a bonfire, was scheduled to end at 5 p.m. Sean Timmons, director of the Hamilton-Wenham Recreation Department, said that the plan was to have children take their jack-o-lanterns home.
Jack Card, director of the Northeast Massachusetts Mosquito Control & Wetlands Management District, said that he believes caution is warranted.
“There were varied temperatures in our district,” he said, while noting that the following days’ temperatures were mild. “My feeling is that there are still bugs out there. There’s definitely a reduced risk, but the cold period was not long enough to squelch that.”
While Essex lifted its outdoor activity ban on the recommendation of the National Weather Service, Board of Health administrator Elaine Wozny acknowledged: “It’s a tough call; it really is.
“We’re requesting people still be vigilant” about mosquitoes, including using repellent with DEET.
Jack Morris, director of public health in the Amesbury/Salisbury Regional Health District and chairman of the Northeast Massachusetts Mosquito Control & Wetlands Management District, said that while frost kills mosquitoes, cold weather will also reduce mosquito activity. For that reason, he said he’s hoping for more chills.
“Hopefully, we don’t have to worry about this until next season,” he said.