First, the Good News: COVID-19 can NOT be spread by bugs.
But mosquitoes and ticks have been known to carry several other harmful illnesses, including West Nile Virus, Lyme disease, and the eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) virus. The threat of infection has only increased with time – vector-borne illnesses tripled in the U.S., with more than 640,000 cases reported during the 13 years from 2004 through 2016, according to the CDC. During that time, nine new germs spread by mosquitoes and ticks were discovered or introduced.
As temperatures rise across the country and disease-carrying bugs come out again, COVID-19 seems to be leaving another casualty in its wake: pest control.
Tips to Keep Mosquitoes Away from Your Home
Create a dry spell for mosquitoes by getting rid of standing water around your home.
The pandemic has thrown a wrench into mosquito and tick management, leaving people more vulnerable to illnesses like Lyme disease, experts say. Health departments are pouring resources into easing the coronavirus and have been forced to limit or suspend pest services, while pest control businesses have seen a dip in customers.
“It’s been dead compared to normal,” says Richard Bialaszewski, owner of Skeeter B Gone, a North Carolina pest control business in the Raleigh area. “As soon as COVID hit, everything went
During an average week this time of year, he estimates the business would get about 100 calls. These days, it’s averaged about 20.
The focus on COVID-19 response has led to reduced pest control services, along with a more limited ability to test mosquito and tick samples for disease, says Chelsea Gridley-Smith, a director of environmental health at the National Association of County and City Health Officials. Local health departments often expand their staff during mosquito and tick season, but that has been hindered by the pandemic.
Less Prevention = More Bugs
The shortages mean less spraying and trapping in many places. Not only does this leave more harmful pests to infect people, but the reduction in testing will skew the reported number of infected mosquitoes and ticks.
“On paper, it’ll show there are fewer cases of mosquitoes and tick-borne diseases,” Gridley-Smith says. “There needs to be a big asterisk next to it to say, ‘tests weren’t done.’”
For most folks, the symptoms from this virus are mild: just a fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes. The real danger may be to pregnant women and their babies. It’s linked to a birth defect called microcephaly, which causes small heads and brain damage. Mosquitoes spread this disease in many parts of the world including Brazil and other countries in South and Central America, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia.
It’s rare in the U.S., but it shows up in places popular with tourists, like Puerto Rico, the Pacific islands, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. When you catch it, you could get problems like rash, fever, headache, easy bruising, and bleeding gums. Sometimes it leads to hemorrhagic fever, which can be deadly. The only vaccine approved by the FDA is for use in children aged 9-16 who already had been infected by one of the four dengue viruses to help prevent getting the disease again from one of the other viruses.
If you get a bite from a mosquito that’s carrying this virus, you probably won’t have any symptoms. Some people, though, get fever, joint pain, diarrhea, vomiting, or a rash. You need to watch out for rare complications, like the brain infections called encephalitis or meningitis. There’s no vaccine for the disease, which shows up in every state except Alaska and Hawaii.
It hardly ever happens in the U.S., but nearly half the world’s population lives at risk of catching this disease. Most cases occur in sub-Saharan Africa, but transmission occurs also in South America, South Asia and many other regions. The symptoms include fever, headache, chills, and vomiting.
This disease takes its name from one of its symptoms, jaundice, which can make your skin and eyes look yellowish. Less serious infections will give you a headache, backache, chills, and vomiting. There’s a vaccine that prevents it, so make sure you get one if you travel to the places in Africa and Latin America where mosquitoes spread it.
The name comes from an African language and refers to the stooped appearance people may have because of severe joint pain. You might also get a rash, headache, nausea, and fatigue. The disease is found in Asia and India, and it’s started to move into Europe and the Americas. There’s no cure, but most people recover. In some cases, symptoms can last months or years.
La Crosse Encephalitis
There are about 65 cases of this virus each year in the U.S. The mosquitoes that carry it bite during the day, usually in the spring through early fall. They live in wooded areas in the upper Midwest, mid-Atlantic, and Southeast. If you get sick, you might get a fever, nausea, and headache, and severe cases can cause nervous system changes. But many people don’t notice any symptoms.
Rift Valley Fever
Infected mosquitoes can give this disease to people and animals. It’s named for an area in Kenya where doctors discovered it, and it’s common in parts of Africa. People also get it in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Symptoms include dizziness and weakness. It can also damage your eyes.
Jamestown Canyon Virus
Health coaches in Sacramento CA noticed it for the first time in the 1980s. It’s named for an area near Boulder, CO. If you catch it, you might get symptoms that may remind you of the flu, like a fever and headache. More serious problems can be inflammation of the brain or spinal cord. There are several types of mosquitoes that are known to carry the disease. Less than 50 cases are reported each year throughout the United States.
Snowshoe Hare Virus
The disease is named for an animal because it was first identified in the blood of the snowshoe hare. The first person to catch this lived in Canada in the 1970s, but it now shows up in the U.S. It causes headache, dizziness, vomiting, and a rash. Sometimes it leads to inflammation of the brain.
In 2019, there were more cases of EEE – a potentially deadly virus spread by mosquitoes – reported in the U.S. than in any year since 1959.
People may be even more susceptible to these illnesses in recent months, given the increase in outdoor activity brought on by social distancing, Gridley-Smith says.
“People are out using public parks and trails without having the areas fully staffed,” she says. “And if you’re going on the trails and trying to maintain distance from other hikers, trails are not usually 6 feet wide. Now you’re walking into areas where the ticks live.”
She added, “It’s a byproduct of the world we live in now. There is an increased use of outdoor spaces, and that’s where the ticks and mosquitoes are living and waiting.”
The Greater Los Angeles County Vector Control District, which serves about 1,300 square miles of L.A. County, issued a notice last month that it would suspend all residential requests for service. In the absence of regular services, the district had to get creative with outreach, says Susanne Kluh, scientific-technical director at the district.
“It mostly had to do with protecting our staff,” she says of the suspension. “Our outreach folks put together videos on how to eliminate ticks and mosquitoes and what to look out for, like gathering sprinkling water.”
Bug Season Tips
To fend off mosquitoes and ticks, the CDC recommends:
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellents with active ingredients including DEET, picaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus.
- Wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants when spending time outdoors
- Avoiding woody areas and tall grass
- Removing any standing water where mosquitoes could lay eggs (bird baths, buckets, flowerpot saucers)
Symptoms to Watch
- EEE, transmitted by mosquitoes, causes a high fever, headache, fatigue, nausea, and neck stiffness.
- Lyme disease, transmitted by deer ticks, can cause a bull’s-eye rash, fever, chills, joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes.
- West Nile Virus, transmitted by mosquitoes, may cause a fever with other symptoms such as a headache, body aches, joint pain, vomiting, diarrhea, or a rash.