New virus threat: Baker warns of active EEE season

Mosquitos have tested positive for eastern equine encephalitis in Franklin County. "We are seeing EEE activity in mosquitoes very early in the season," said Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel.

BOSTON -- While managing the ongoing response to an outbreak of one sometimes-fatal virus state officials are gearing up for an active summer season for another one, but the messaging to keep residents safe shares many similarities.

Whether it's the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 or the mosquito-borne eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) virus that appears primed for an active summer, the main message from Gov. Charlie Baker, Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel and others Tuesday was that it's up to each individual to take appropriate steps to limit their own risk of exposure.

"The key to our message is about taking personal protective measures," Bharel said at a press conference in Plymouth. She added, "We've all been spending a lot of time indoors related to COVID-19 and we want the residents of Massachusetts to go outside and enjoy outdoor time with their families. But just like we asked you to take precautions against the other virus that causes COVID, we ask you to take enhanced precautions against EEE so that we can protect ourselves and continue to enjoy the outdoors."

Bharel said people across Massachusetts, not just areas that commonly see cases of EEE, should use mosquito repellents with an EPA-registered active ingredient, wear long sleeves and long pants when outdoors to reduce exposed skin, and stay aware of mosquito activity in the community.

And by the end of this week, legislation granting the administration new powers to run a statewide mosquito control response when the threat of EEE or other mosquito-related diseases is high could be one step closer to the governor's desk, House Speaker Robert DeLeo's office said.

The state is launching a public awareness campaign to remind people of the threat of EEE and the ways to stay safe during mosquito season, and will post the messages on digital billboards, on social media and streaming services, and on television, Bharel said. A new website, www.mass.gov/mosquitoesandticks, includes statewide EEE and West Nile virus risk maps.

Last year was the "most active year since the 1950s" for EEE in Massachusetts, with 12 human cases of EEE and six deaths, Bharel said. The disease can affect people of all ages and is generally spread to humans through the bite of an infected mosquito.

Outbreaks of EEE tend to extend themselves over two or three years, officials said Tuesday, so the state began last fall to prepare for this summer's mosquito season. The Department of Public Health has detected the virus in two mosquitoes already in 2020, which Bharel said is the earliest the virus has been identified here in 20 years. No human or animal cases have been reported yet this year.

Last year's EEE activity also showed that EEE is not contained to the typical clusters in Bristol and Plymouth counties, where certain swamps that serve as mosquito breeding grounds are more prevalent. The two EEE-infected mosquitoes reported by DPH already this year came from Orange and Wendell, areas into which the state had recently expanded its surveillance trap program.

"Part of this is about dealing with the fact that as the virus -- not COVID -- as the EEE virus migrates a bit as birds and mosquitoes migrate, it's important that we think a little more about this as a statewide issue and not so much on the particular areas where we've always focused on it where historically have been the places where we've typically seen the biggest outbreaks associated with EEE," Baker said Tuesday.

In addition to reminding people to protect themselves from EEE, Tuesday's press conference at the Plymouth County Mosquito Control Project served as a chance for the governor to press lawmakers to act on legislation he filed in April to modernize the state's approach to combating mosquito-borne illnesses like EEE and West Nile virus.

When he filed his bill, Baker wrote that the "current framework for mosquito control dates to the 1970s and does not allow for the sort of coordinated statewide efforts that are necessary to prevent and combat these viruses and the mosquitoes that carry them," saying that many cities and towns lack entities engaged in mosquito control and are not part of larger control projects.

The Senate approved a mosquito control bill (S 2757) based on Baker's legislation to give the State Reclamation and Mosquito Control Board new powers to fight mosquito-borne illnesses when the state Department of Public Health determines there is an elevated risk.

"The legislation that we filed with the Legislature -- which I do anticipate and hope will find its way through the Legislature shortly and get to our desk -- will allow the experts at the Department of Public Health, and the State Reclamation and Mosquito Control Board to work together proactively to protect public health across the commonwealth," Baker said. "When DPH determines that there is an elevated risk, the experts in mosquito control at the State Reclamation and Mosquito Control Board may take necessary actions to mitigate that risk."

Baker has good reason to anticipate that the bill will make its way through the Legislature soon. DeLeo's office told the News Service on Tuesday that the speaker told the governor last week that the House intends to take up the mosquito control bill this week -- the House is planning a formal session for Thursday -- and reiterated that plan during a conversation Monday.