Summer signals the peak of tick season, when people spray on tick repellent and don long pants to safely enjoy the warm weather in tick-friendly areas — it’s also when state health officials gather information to predict the insects’ population size.
But this year, estimating the tick population will be a challenge. Even with a mild winter, which allows ticks to more easily survive into the warmer seasons, health officials have reported significantly low counts of tick exposure due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to Dr. Catherine Brown, an epidemiologist for the state Department of Public Health.
“This is an interesting year because of human behavior,” she said. “Because we were inside for so long, which reduces our potential exposure to ticks, people are not going to the doctor. So, the data that we have to date suggests that there are fewer people coming in contact with ticks.”
Scientists use data from emergency visits to gather information about any given tick season, she said. With a decrease in hospital visits due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, the recent data is heavily skewed.
“Visits are way down,” Brown said. “Since we are doing surveillance that relies on emergency visits, it compromises our ability to get really good info.”
Data collected by the state from January to mid-April shows that tick exposure accounted for only .2 percent of total emergency department visits (more than 900,000) so far this year. In the past three years, that number has hovered between .4 and .75 percent in mid-April.
But even with a normal level of human activity, it’s nearly impossible to accurately predict what an upcoming tick season will bring, Brown said.
Ticks have a two-year life cycle, unlike mosquito populations, which live only a few months, making their future population easier to predict, she said. Rather than only looking at recent weather to predict tick populations, scientists must account for events over the course of the past two years.
In other words, even though the state didn’t experience a harsh winter, tick season could still be severe — especially in Massachusetts.
“We don’t seem to get those deep freezes throughout winter — any time it’s above freezing, ticks are active,” said Dr. Patrick Cahill, an infectious disease doctor with Cape Cod Healthcare. “There really is no off season [for ticks], especially on the Cape and the Islands.”
“We always have a lot of ticks in Massachusetts. Even in a year where there are slightly smaller populations, there are always just tons of [ticks],” Brown said. “Plenty of them are around to cause tick-borne disease.”
But that shouldn’t deter anyone from taking advantage of the warm weather, she said. If necessary precautions are taken, there’s no reason people shouldn’t get out and get some fresh air.
Brown recommends prevention steps such as spraying tick repellent, wearing long pants, and wearing light-colored clothes so ticks can be easily spotted before they can infect a person. It’s difficult to completely protect yourself from ticks, she said, but these steps can go a long way.
“It’s okay for people to go outside. We should take advantage of that right now,” Brown said. “But I want them to not get to the point where they have to go to the doctor.”
Anyone who comes in contact with a tick should promptly remove it, call a doctor, and provide a description of the insect, Brown said. Doctors will often be able to tell if it is a disease-carrying tick.
Matt Berg can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattberg33.