Heightened concerns about mosquito-borne diseases have driven many south suburbanites indoors, as have edicts by local officials to obey sunset curfews and reduce the risk of exposure.
But those precautions and restrictions, which include canceling and even banning some outdoor events, are becoming somewhat routine now that the twin warm-weather scourges of West Nile and Eastern equine encephalitis viruses seem here to stay, at least until the first hard frost spells the end of the mosquito season, according to the state Department of Public Health.
“Unfortunately, this is getting to be standard operating procedure around here,’’ said Easton’s town manager, David Colton.
Both EEE- and West Nile-infected mosquitoes have been detected in the town, and last week state officials raised the local mosquito alert to “high” after discovering more insects with the EEE virus there, as well as in Raynham, West Bridgewater, and Taunton. All four communities immediately imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew and urged school and recreation officials to reschedule all outdoor activities.
Dusk-to-dawn curfews have also been set in Hanover, Hanson, Whitman, Rockland, and in Weymouth following the death from EEE last month of an 85-year-old Weymouth woman. At that time, state health officials also raised the mosquito alert in those communities from “moderate” to “high,” and town, school, and recreation officials kicked into gear to prevent exposure.
Weymouth canceled or rescheduled sporting events and canned a popular family movie night at the beach. Health director Dan McCormack said Janet Dignan’s death was sobering, as is news that a Plymouth County man with the West Nile virus was hospitalized.
“Everybody wants to be outside,’’ McCormack said. “It’s tough to impose a curfew and it’s tough to police it,’’ especially one that could be in effect for three long months and take effect earlier each day as summer wanes. In November, sunset occurs at 4:15 p.m.
Whitman officials sent out automated messages and prohibited evening field use, according to Town Administrator Frank Lyman, as has neighboring Hanson through its ban on all outdoor activities from 6:30 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Hanover rescheduled some varsity football games and will take other action as needed, officials there said. But they were already ahead of the game.
“We actually implemented the curfew two weeks earlier than the others when we had our first detection of an infected mosquito,’’ Troy Clarkson, the town manager, said.
At that time, residents were urged to wear long sleeves and pants, use insect repellent with DEET, and avoid the outdoors at peak mosquito feeding times.
Despite the lost freedom, Clarkson said, he has received no complaints.
“I guess the silver lining is we are becoming more adept at planning because, unfortunately, this is a common occurrence,’’ he said. “People understand we have their public health and best interests at heart.”
Rockland’s health agent, Janice McCarthy, shut down athletic fields as soon as the town received a positive test for a mosquito infected with the West Nile virus.
“It does have an effect on youth sports groups and the high school, which play on Friday night, but it can’t be helped,” she said.
Most people are understanding, McCarthy said. “In fact, the only complaint I got was from someone with a child in soccer who thought the 7 p.m. curfew was too late,’’ she said.
County mosquito control agencies have been spraying pesticide all summer, and although that helps the battle against the bugs, it is not enough, said Selectman Joe Pacheco of Raynham.
Raynham is a hotbed of EEE-infected mosquitoes, and Pacheco has been lobbying the state for regular aerial spraying. But even though a resident died from the disease last summer, officials from the governor on down have not responded, he said.
“I don’t know what it will take to get his attention,’’ Pacheco said of Governor Deval Patrick. “It’s about being proactive. This is a town of 13,000. It’s not like we are huge.”
State Department of Public Health veterinarian Catherine Brown said anytime a mosquito alert is raised to “high” anywhere in the state, it triggers a conversation about aerial spraying, but the decision is not made lightly.
Last year, there were two aerial sprays, Brown said, and the state took the unprecedented step of raising the risk level of all of Massachusetts to moderate, with the exception of any communities that were placed at “high” risk.
Arranging for the spraying is not easy, she said. The pesticide is manufactured out of state, and planes used to distribute it are also hangared elsewhere. “Even if we wanted to, the pilots are spraying in Vermont tonight,’’ Brown said, speaking hypothetically.
West Nile virus-carrying mosquitoes like urban and suburban areas and small puddles of stagnant water, while EEE-carrying mosquitoes prefer cedar swamps, found here in the largest numbers this side of New Jersey, she said. But mosquito patterns have been changing. Last year, for example, EEE started appearing in northern Plymouth County and part of Norfolk County, she said, which is not historically a hot spot.
On the other hand, the Hockomock Swamp, near Raynham and West Bridgewater, is usually rife with infected mosquitoes but had not seen as much activity this year, she said.
“The planes aren’t here, but the trucks are,” for local spraying, Brown said. “Their response is appropriate to the patterns.” (A day after the interview with Brown, the mosquito alert was raised to “high” in both Raynham and West Bridgewater, based on infected mosquitoes discovered in the swamp area, town officials said.)
Although Middleborough is nowhere near Weymouth, its health director, Jeanne Spalding, told selectmen last week that Dignan’s death was cause for great concern and vigilance for all communities.
More than half of the 72-square-mile town is wetlands, a breeding ground for mosquitoes, Selectman Allin Frawley added. Frawley volunteered to speak with Raynham’s Pacheco to offer help and support on the aerial spraying request.
Other towns at moderate risk for EEE include Norton, Mansfield, Dighton, Berkley, Sharon, Stoughton, Braintree, Holbrook, Abington, East Bridgewater, Hingham, Norwell, Pembroke, and Brockton.
Brockton’s health director, Lou Tartaglia, said no curfew is necessary yet, but public schools spokeswoman Jocelyn Meek said one word from him and parents will be notified and schedules rearranged.
Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.