EASTON — On Wednesday afternoon at Oliver Ames High School, workers raked the manicured stadium turf while whistles blew nearby at Tigers football practice. Towering lights surround the freshly painted field but will likely never be put to use this fall. Like many schools in communities at serious risk for the rare but deadly EEE virus, Oliver Ames has moved its Friday night football games to Saturday afternoon.
“None of us are happy about the change,” said Steph Keller, the mother of a senior offensive lineman. “Football is about Friday night lights, not random Saturday afternoons.”
Easton is one of 32 communities in Massachusetts now at “critical” risk for EEE, or Eastern equine encephalitis, after a fifth human case was confirmed Thursday, according to the state’s Department of Public Health. High schools in 31 of those cities and towns have responded to the threat by instituting curfews for outdoor activities and rescheduling games to avoid periods of peak mosquito activity.
The mosquito-borne virus typically flares up once a decade and persists for two to three years. Massachusetts has just entered a new, intense cycle of EEE activity, state officials have said. In August, nine animals and four people tested positive, including a Fairhaven woman who died as a result.
The state’s fifth human case was confirmed in a man in his 70s from southwestern Middlesex County.
The Department of Public Health has recommended that communities identified as critical cancel or reschedule outdoor activities that occur from dusk to dawn. Most have done so. School administrators in Hopedale, one of three communities elevated to critical EEE risk Thursday, could not be reached.
Many schools are heeding the warning calls for a quick turnaround from the class dismissal bell to the first whistle on the field. At Bridgewater-Raynham High, all outdoor athletic games in September must start before 4 p.m. in hopes of getting athletes and fans home well before sundown. Old Colony High in Rochester has shuttered its wooded cross-country courses and mandated student-athletes wait indoors for rides home.
At Oliver Ames, it may mean no home football games under the lights this fall. Keller, who acts as treasurer of the team’s booster club, laments the effect on team morale and attendance.
“From the kids’ perspective, they’re bummed out about it. Not as many of their classmates will come,” she said, since students may have other commitments over the weekend.
“From a parent’s perspective, this has been a massive inconvenience. It makes it so that now I cannot attend these games that I normally would and want to,” said Keller, who works as a nurse and schedules her hours around football games in the fall.
The booster club also fears that the shift will bring financial losses since revenue from Friday night concession stands accounts for a large part of the team’s funding, according to club president Rob Campbell, who has twin boys entering their final season with the Tigers.
EEE is extremely rare even during an intense cycle. Just 28 people in Massachusetts have tested positive for the virus since 2004, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But there is no vaccination and no treatment. Roughly 40 percent of all people with EEE die within two to 10 days of showing symptoms. Survivors will likely suffer from disabling and progressive mental and physical impairment and die within a few years, said Dr. Catherine Brown, the state’s epidemiologist.
For Katie Young, mother of a Tigers wide receiver, just the threat of EEE makes the schedule change worthwhile.
“My cousin is a nurse practitioner in Boston and she’s encountered two EEE patients. After I found out from her what it can actually do, I believe no precaution is over the top,” said Young, who was picking up her younger two sons from freshman football practice.
Much of Easton is within the 17,000-acre Hockomock Swamp, which acts as a natural barrier to flooding and an oasis for flora and fauna. But Hockomock is also a hotbed for mosquitoes carrying EEE.
Of the 392 sampled mosquitoes that tested positive for the virus in Massachusetts since mid-July, 11 percent were found in the 29-square-mile town.
Despite the high percentage of positive mosquito tests in Easton, no animals or humans in the town have been infected by EEE this year. But the town will always be at heightened risk.
As parents of former and current Tigers, Keller and Campbell recall a similar shift in scheduling during the state’s last intense EEE cycle, from 2010 to 2012.
While disappointed about this year’s obstacles, Young — an Easton native and 1989 Oliver Ames graduate — recognizes that the risk comes with the territory of living in a town near Hockomock.
These parents, as well as many scrambling athletic directors and health officials, are hoping for an early frost. A few nights of well below freezing temperatures will eliminate most of the pesky and perilous pests.
“And I’ve never wished for an early frost before. Ever,” said Campbell with a chuckle.