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Many communities scrambled to leave state mosquito spraying program

  • A mosquito PHOTO BY PROVIDENCE JOURNAL/TNS



For the Gazette
Monday, June 14, 2021

During the past few months, several western Massachusetts communities have scrambled to meet a May 28 deadline to opt out of the state’s mosquito control spraying program.

Northampton became the latest municipality to opt out of the program under the State Reclamation and Mosquito Control Board (SRMCB) following in the footsteps of other towns like Amherst, Pelham, Williamsburg, Westhampton, Whately, Goshen and Greenfield.

“The Board of Health voted unanimously, recommending that the city opt out,” Northampton Public Health Director Merrideth O’Leary said.

The option to opt out came as part of the “Act to Mitigate Arbovirus in the Commonwealth,” which was passed in July 2020 and is aimed at creating a more centralized and coordinated response to outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease. The legislation was motivated by the 2019 outbreak of Eastern Equine Encephalopathy (EEE), a mosquito-borne arbovirus that is rare but often fatal.

O’Leary noted, however, that the problem has been more prevalent in the eastern part of the state where a lot of the prime habitat exists for the mosquito species that carry diseases like EEE and West Nile virus.

Spraying is rarely conducted in western Massachusetts. According to officials, 2019 was the first time that the state ever sprayed to prevent EEE in Hampshire and Hampden counties, and that was only in Brimfield, Palmer and Ware.

According to Craig Gilvarg, deputy communications director of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, the opt-out process was announced in mid-March. It also has taken many communities by surprise.

“We first heard about having to opt out in late April, and at that time they said we needed to do it by May 15,” Donna Gibson, chairwoman of the Williamsburg Board of Health and member of the Foothills Health District, said. “The deadline was later moved to May 28, because people had a lot of questions and concerns.”

Gibson said questions ranged from what chemicals would be sprayed and possible effects on the environment, wildlife and human health, as well as how research and surveillance for mosquito-borne disease would be conducted before a decision to spray is made.

Easthampton City Councilor Owen Zaret said that he had just heard of the option to opt out of any possible mosquito spraying by the state.

“I didn’t know anything about it until it was recently brought to my attention,” Zaret said, noting that opting-out was a lengthy and detailed process, which he said left the city insufficient time to meet the requirements.

To opt out of spraying, a municipality had to first hold a public meeting of the Board of Health at which public comment is accepted. After consultation with the Board of Health, the Select Board or City Council must then vote on the issue.

Westhampton Select Board Chairman Phil Dowling echoed the sentiments of other municipalities.

“We voted to opt out primarily because people were concerned with the effects of the pesticides used and the fact that we haven’t had a case of triple E in this town,” Dowling said.

Gilvarg said that applications to opt out will be “reviewed with consideration of historical arbovirus risk, the impact of the opt-out application regionally, and the implementation of an alternative mosquito management plan.”

According to the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, an alternative mosquito management plan must, at minimum, include a detailed public outreach and educational component.

“Thankfully, we are already part of the Pioneer Valley Mosquito Control District,” O’Leary said, noting that the district’s resources helped in developing an alternative plan for Northampton.

Under the oversight of the State Reclamation and Mosquito Control Board, designated mosquito control districts like Pioneer Valley can tailor their mosquito management to the unique geographical and ecological makeup as well as concerns of their member communities.

Mosquito control districts provide mosquito control services such as frequent surveillance for disease-carrying mosquitoes, habitat mapping, planning, access to egg-killing larvicides, insect-killing adulticide spray, education, and outreach.

The Pioneer Valley district serves member municipalities in Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties.

On May 17, the Amherst Town Council voted to join the Pioneer Valley Mosquito Control District and use its alternative management plan to opt out of state spraying.

Staying in

Some towns like Hadley and Southampton, already members of the Pioneer Valley Mosquito Control District, have decided not to opt out of mosquito spraying by the state.

“Our intention is to stay within the program at this time,” Southampton Town Administrator Ed Gibson said.

He also said that the “implications and ramifications of having to come up with our own plan” played a part in the town’s decision.

In Hadley, the Select Board voted 3-2 to remain in the program despite a unanimous recommendation from the town’s Board of Health to opt out.

Select Board member John Waskiewicz recently said that he still had concerns that opting out could leave the town without resources if there was ever an unexpected outbreak of mosquito-borne disease.

“If there is a declared public health emergency and the city has opted out, then the state will not deploy those resources here,” O’Leary said. “But even if we got a couple of mosquitoes here with triple E, I don’t think we would ever use aerial spraying in western Mass.”

O’Leary noted that heavy aerial spraying has taken place in the eastern part of the state, not only due to the presence of EEE but also because it would be “impossible to get truck-mounted sprayers into those large boggy and marshy areas that we don’t have here.”

According to the state’s Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences, EEE was first identified in Massachusetts in 1938. Since then, just over 110 cases have occurred, the majority of which have been in Bristol, Plymouth, and Norfolk counties. Outbreaks tend to cycle every 10 to 20 years with cycles lasting two to three years.

Experts say that surveillance and early detection of disease-carrying mosquito populations is key to effective mosquito management.

The targeted placement of bacterial larvicides at popular mosquito breeding grounds like catch basins and ditches is said to be more effective and less toxic than adulticide mosquito sprays, and unlikely to result in human exposure.

Experts say to reduce mosquitos around the home and prevent the spread of mosquito-borne viruses, people are encouraged to get rid of any standing water on their property that may collect in tires, buckets, or other containers, and make sure that all door and window screens are in good shape. Personal protection like bug spray and wearing clothes that cover one’s skin also reduce the possibility of mosquito bites.