Robert Miller: On coronavirus cabin-fever walks watch for ticks
Corona with Lyme?
That’s the unimaginably bad deal people could face this spring.
That’s because the coronavirus pandemic is keeping people home.
To fight the cabin fever brought on by self-quarantining — working from home, learning from home — shut-ins are escaping to the outdoors. It’s a curative for body and soul, a path worth pursuing.
But there are black-legged ticks out there. Their bites carry Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.
Which means it’s more important than ever to emphasize tick wariness. But newbie hikers may not know about the rules and others, happy to be in the fresh air, may forget them.
Which give people fighting Lyme pause.
“Absolutely,” said Karen Gaudian, the head of the Ridgefield-based Lyme Connection. “People are out there social distancing. But ticks don’t care if you have coronavirus.”
“I definitely think it’s an issue,” said Maggie Shaw, the former leader of the Newtown Lyme Disease Task Force, who is now organizing the Litchfield County Lyme Network. “I talk to people and I realize they don’t know about ticks. It’s scary.”
Ticks never hibernate — they wait out the winter under a protective blanket the snow provides.
This mild, nearly snowless winter meant they were active earlier.
“The adult ticks are active outside in March,” said Neeta Connally, an associate professor of biology at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury and the director of Western’s Tickborne Disease Prevention Laboratory. “Currently, with the warmer weather, people will see more.”
“We were finding ticks in January and February,” said Kirby Stafford, state entomologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven.
Black-legged ticks go from eggs to adults over two years, needing a blood meal at each stage of their life — three in total.
White-footed mice and other scurriers carry the bacteria — Borrelia burgdorferi — that causes Lyme disease. Ticks can feed on them, ingest the bacteria, and then spread it during their next meal. If a tick attaches to a human for a nosh, it can transmit the bacteria, and Lyme disease.
Ticks thrive in overgrown, moist thickets, high grass and in leaf litter. They also proliferate under Japanese barberry, a non-native shrub that takes over big plots of forest land.
Currently, the ticks people encounter are in their adult stage. That makes them easier to see — and remove — than the tiny nymphal ticks that arrive in May to feed and stay for the summer.
But nymphal ticks have had only one blood meal. Adults have had two. That makes the adults twice as likely to carry the Lyme bacteria.
“We’ve found that 30 to 70 percent of adult ticks are infected,” Connally said.
But Lyme is only one of the diseases black-legged ticks carry. There’s a babesiosis, which is caused by a parasite. There’s anaplasmosis, caused by another bacteria.
And in very rare cases, there’s the Powassan virus, which can cause swelling of the brain — encephalitis — and is very dangerous to humans.
There are also new ticks arriving on the landscape. There’s the Asian long-horned tick, which Connally’s lab was first in the state to find. It’s unclear if these ticks spread disease to humans.
And there’s the lone star tick, which Stafford of the experiment station said has established itself in coastal towns in Fairfield County. It’s more aggressive that the black-legged tick and carries its own set of diseases.
Just as coronavirus is teaching people a whole new set of behaviors, vigilance against tick-borne disease requires them as well.
Lyme Connection in Ridgefield has preached its five-step BLAST protocol for many years. That involves showering after being outdoors, inspecting your body for ticks, using insect repellents, spraying your yard and making sure pets are protected against ticks as well. The information is on its website at www.lymeconnection.org
Connally also said it’s good to throw outdoor clothing in a drier and tumble them at high heat to kill ticks hiding in a fold or wrinkle.
In the near future, Stafford said, there will be commercially available bait boxes that will, in effect, vaccinate white-footed mice against the Lyme bacteria.
But Maggie Shaw, who now lives in Litchfield, said it’s disheartening to realize that decades into the fight, public education about Lyme disease is still lacking.
“I see signs about social distancing posted on trails now, but nothing about ticks and Lyme disease,” she said. “And it’s been with us for 40 years.”
Contact Robert Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org