With nearly every municipality on Cape Ann deciding not to enroll in a regional mosquito control program and the first day of summer tomorrow, local officials are looking for other ways to monitor and manage the flying bloodsuckers.
Last summer the number of West Nile virus and Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) cases became a public health crisis in Massachusetts with two deaths — one in Georgetown, the other in Amesbury — attributed to the mosquito-borne diseases. All of Cape Ann’s communities — Gloucester, Rockport, Essex and Manchester — closed parks and outdoor spaces at dusk as municipal officials grasped at ways to protect people from infection. At one point, the state raised the threat level for EEE to critical in Essex after a horse in town came down with the disease.
This summer could be a high-risk season as well, according to state Department of Public Health Acting Commissioner Cheryl Bartlett.
In Gloucester, the city’s Board of Health recommended the city enroll in the Northeast Massachusetts Mosquito Control and Wetlands Management District in March, but Mayor Carolyn Kirk rejected the request, according to the city’s chief administrative officer, James Duggan.
City Council’s Planning and Development subcommittee can still be a part of the ongoing conversation, but the city is looking toward methods of mosquito management and control that involve more community outreach, Duggan said.
“More comprehensive reviews and analyses of (mosquito) watch options are out there,” he said, adding that the city needs a more formal and reviewed plan before signing on with the district.
“We need to be able to look at all the options,” he said.
Since the cost to enroll in the district is not budgeted the money would have to come from a transfer and Kirk would have to sign off on it.
Despite the request getting swatted down, the city is not brushing off the severity of the issue.
“The Gloucester Board of Health is concerned as mosquitoes are no longer a nuisance, but a public health threat,” Public Health Director Noreen Burke said.
While the state-operated management district does offer a comprehensive amount of control and management, Burke said the city is looking at other surveillance options at Kirk’s request.
Many preventative procedures, such as wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants, staying away from highly populated mosquito areas from dusk until dawn and removing any stagnant water, are important whether a community is enrolled in the district or not, she said.
Like Gloucester, Essex and Rockport are not enrolled in the mosquito control district.
Essex Board of Health Administrator Elaine Wozny said the town does not have any other major routes or options for keeping the bugs at bay, other than the same precautions it takes every year.
The state program can be figured to a specific community’s needs, said Jack Card, director of the regional management district. An assessment is done by the state Department of Administration and Finance based on what services the municipality wants done, how many acres the town or city has and how many residents are living in what areas, Card said.
Manchester, the only town on Cape Ann enrolled in the program, pays $35,000 annually; should the city seek the state’s services, Gloucester’s annual cost would have been about $87,000.
Once a community agrees to join, it has to commit to the district for three years.
“The biggest factor is surveillance, determining whether or not a mosquito is carrying a virus,” Card said.
Spraying for adult mosquitoes is generally a “last ditch” effort, he said.
Lawmakers are trying to address the problem, too.
In an effort to curb West Nile virus, municipal employees could get the authority back to drop non-toxic pesticide into storm drains to help combat larvae.
Communities were allowed to do so for nearly a decade. But, before the 2010 season, the Department of Agricultural Resources decided against renewing municipal employees’ authority to use the pesticides, according to Rep. Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat who sponsored the legislation.
State law reverted to allowing only licensed professional pesticide applicators, leaving the job mainly to those who work at local mosquito control commissions.
Thomas Philbin, legislative analyst with the Massachusetts Municipal Association, pleaded with lawmakers to pass the bill quickly to help ensure municipal workers can finish putting pesticides in storm drains by early July before they become breeding grounds for mosquitoes carrying diseases.
“This legislation is going to save lives,” he said. “It is a simple fix for the prevention of mosquito-borne viruses.”
Material from the State House News Service was used in this report by James Niedzinski, who can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3455 or email@example.com.