Another Public Health Hazard? Baker Warns of Early EEE Threat

Massachusetts health officials say the mosquito-borne eastern equine encephalitis has arrived early this year

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As Massachusetts continues to reopen from the coronavirus shutdowns, Gov. Charlie Baker addressed another public health threat on Tuesday -- eastern equine encephalitis.

Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito were joined by Secretary of Energy and Enviromental Affairs Kathleen Theoharides and Public Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel at a press conference to discuss ongoing efforts to prepare for EEE season. Eastern equine encephalitis outbreaks typically last two to three years, so state health officials have been preparing for this since last summer.

"If there's a big outbreak, it could be a really big deal and a big issue," Baker said. "[But] if we're all smart about this we can really limit the impact."

Three days after announcing the first case of the season, state public health officials on Monday said that EEE has been detected in in a second mosquito sample, this one collected July 5 in the Franklin County community of Wendell.

The first EEE case was detected in Orange, also in Franklin County. State officials now consider the EEE risks to be moderate in the communities of Athol, Wendell, New Salem and Orange.

Gov. Charlie Baker addresses steps to mosquito control in Mass. to prevent spread of Eastern Equine Encephalitis.

There were 12 human cases of EEE in Massachusetts in 2019 with six deaths. The disease can affect people of all ages and is generally spread to humans through the bite of an infected mosquito. Officials are now cautioning everyone to again begin taking precautions to avoid getting bit by mosquitoes.

"We are seeing EEE activity in mosquitoes very early in the season," Bharel said. "We will continue to conduct additional surveillance, including trapping and testing mosquitoes in the region over the next several weeks to better inform our guidance to local communities."

State Epidemiologist Catherine Brown said the "second early finding reinforces our concern about EEE activity this season."

The first human EEE case last year was announced on Aug. 10, and the first human case of West Nile virus was announced on Sept. 11. Last year, risks were elevated to high and critical levels in scores of communities throughout the summer, and aerial spraying was deployed in many areas.

In April, during the COVID-19 surge here, Baker filed legislation to modernize the state's approach to the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses, saying that many cities and towns lack entities engaged in mosquito control and are not part of larger control projects.

Gov. Charlie Baker announced that travelers from the rest of New England, New York and New Jersey will no longer have to quarantine when they travel to Massachusetts.

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." He said he filed the bill after the state last year "experienced unprecedented levels of EEE prevalence, illness, and deaths."

The Senate approved a mosquito control bill in June and it is pending before the House Ways and Means Committee. The bill would 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.


State House News Service contributed to this report.

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