On April 9, Governor Gretchen Whitmer expanded her “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order in response to COVID-19. Some lawmakers are worried that the expansion of that order was too restrictive.
Republican state Senator Kim LaSata wrote a letter to Governor Whitmer in response to the expansion of the order, asking that lawncare and landscape professionals be considered essential employees, in compliance with updated federal rules. She has also asked that insecticides be classified as essential items.
LaSata says this is because she’s worried about the potential for another outbreak of Eastern Equine Encephalitis, or EEE. It's a rare disease caused by a virus that can be transmitted to people by mosquitoes. LaSata says her district in southwest Michigan was hit hard by the outbreak in October of 2019. Michigan saw ten total cases of the disease, with four in the 21st District.
“We had such a mild winter this last winter, and I know from talking to people, they’ve already seen mosquitoes around. So we don’t know going forward what, if any, that EEE threat will be. To prevent it, we need the landscapers out there spraying. We need them cutting grass: the grass should be short, the bushes should be trimmed, any ornamental water structures or bird baths need to be cleaned out,” she says.
She says while many Michiganders could easily do this themselves, there are also many who are at risk who cannot.
“We all know of many individuals that for whatever reason, it could be that they’re elderly, maybe because of a disability or they’re just not able to do these things on their own," says LaSata. "And now is the time that all of the landscapers are out there doing these things, doing the spring cleanup, removing the wet leaves from the gutters, and cleaning up the yards. And that’s going to help prevent mosquitoes. So this is a safety issue.”
So just how likely is the threat of another EEE outbreak in 2020?
Gillian Conrad is with the Berrien County Health Department. Berrien County is in the 21st District represented by LaSata. She says the 2019 outbreak of EEE was an anomaly: “None of us could have ever predicted that.”
“That was a freak sort of year that we experienced, and at the point that we were at in the late summer, early fall, with the number of cases that we had, aerial spraying for mosquitoes was a really good option to reduce the risk of that virus to our residents. Right now, here in the middle of April 2020, we do not have any surveillance data at this moment that shows us that there will be a risk of EEE again this year.”
She says that mid-April is typically too early for the health department to start gathering surveillance data on the different kinds of mosquito species that are active in the area. The money that the Department of Health and Human Services provides for this surveillance basically covers “bug collection,” Conrad says. The process of gathering bugs and data includes testing the different species of mosquitoes to determine if there are potential carriers of West Nile Virus and EEE. And just because a species of mosquito is found that has in the past been a carrier of EEE or West Nile virus, she says that’s not a guarantee that the virus will spread in the community.
“Even though we see the species of mosquito that could carry West Nile virus or could carry EEE, it doesn’t mean we have the virus present in our community. Unfortunately, until we start to see EEE show up in animals, specifically horses or deer, we don't really know if that virus is present in our community. Until we get that data, it’s kind of a guessing game as to know whether that virus will show up or how bad it might be in our area in a given year.”
Conrad says mosquitoes will continue to be a nuisance as they continue to be a part of Michigan’s environment. Michigan residents can protect themselves by wearing an EPA-approved insect repellent, wearing long sleeves and pants when they venture outdoors, avoiding the outdoors during the mosquito-heavy dusk period, and by dumping any standing water on their properties.
Conrad also says Michiganders can also do spraying on their own individual properties, but the Berrien County Health Department has no plans to do any widespread aerial spraying in the near future.
“We understand that there are concerns that lawmakers or communities might have about being able to make sure that they are reducing mosquito populations and protecting themselves against vector-borne viruses that can also make people sick and potentially kill people, but we are in the midst of a global pandemic from a very serious virus that is spreading person to person. There are a lot higher risks right now with COVID-19 than we are concerned about with West Nile or EEE at this time.”