Health officials hold pop-up events to protect against tick-borne diseases

By AALIANNA MARIETTA

For the Recorder

Published: 07-25-2023 1:04 PM

CONWAY — Gathered outside Conway Town Hall, Maureen O’Reilly and Kathy “Kat” Llamas sprayed 27 pairs of shoes to fight a health threat buried in the bushes, trees, grass and pets’ fur: ticks.

Spring, summer and fall mark peak tick season in Massachusetts, with the majority of tick-borne diseases occurring in June, July and August, according to monthly tick reports posted on mass.gov.

“It affects everybody; it can affect kids at camp running around in the yard, it can affect gardeners and hikers, but it also can affect anyone who doesn’t even think that they’re in the woods and they walk their pet or their dog on a leash,” said O’Reilly, a community health educator and epidemiologist for the Cooperative Public Health Service at the Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG).

The tick prevention event at Conway Town Hall earlier this month marked the first in a series of “pop-ups” organized by health officials to protect residents from the tiny troublemakers by spraying shoes with permethrin. Safe for humans to wear on their clothing but not to inhale or touch when wet, the insecticide kills invertebrate species with a dangerous bite, such as ticks, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. By coating the shoes in the “tried and trusted” permethrin, O’Reilly and Llamas, chair of the Conway Board of Health, helped block ticks at the first stop on their journey to their human hosts’ legs.

According to the World Health Organization, ticks are vectors of human diseases such as Lyme, tularemia and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, delivering them from one living organism to another. In fact, ticks are the second most dangerous vector of human disease behind mosquitoes.

“Ticks don’t move more than 6 meters in their lifetime, so they really just want to grab something, hitch a ride, and then they’re kind of programmed to want to crawl up to, usually, areas of the neck,” O’Reilly explained. “The little tiny nymphs that are the hardest to see would go up on your shoe, so by getting a long-lasting insect repellant on the shoe, the ticks might die before they crawl up and bite your legs.”

Protected with goggles, a mask and gloves, O’Reilly sprays the shoes with permethrin in a plastic bin before handing them off in a sealed paper bag. After 24 hours, the shoes are dry and ready to brave the bushes and grass for up to 40 days.

Beyond shoes, O’Reilly stated that, “The most important thing that people can do themselves is to do a daily tick check … get a lot of different zones, think like a tick, go low, come high.” According to mass.gov, ticks’ favorite hiding spots include between the toes, behind the knees, the groin, armpits, neck, along the hairline and behind the ears.

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O’Reilly said identifying the type of tick is an essential next step because health risks depend on the species. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, deer ticks, or black-legged ticks, cause lyme disease and anaplasmosis, the two most common tick-borne illnesses observed by the Cooperative Public Health Service, according to O’Reilly.

TickReport, a service from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and TickEncounter from the University of Rhode Island, identify participants’ ticks. After customers mail their ticks to the TickReport testing lab, they receive an email with the species, life stage, feeding status and micrograph of the insect. Costs range from $50 to $200 depending on the test plan. TickEncounter also emails participants the risk of the tick, along with links and resources for bite protection for no cost after participants upload a photo of the tick and describe the tick interaction on their website.

Before checking for ticks, O’Reilly said, spraying shoes with permethrin adds “another layer of protection.”

Although O’Reilly said rates of tick-borne illnesses across the county are pretty similar to last year, she noted, “I think a lot of folks have been more, anecdotally, outside with the pandemic,” increasing their exposure to ticks and the diseases they carry.

Tick prevention events also help rebuild the connection between town communities and boards of health after the emergency state of COVID-19, said O’Reilly and Llamas.

“I think now that the immediate crisis is over, we still want to maintain that connection to the people in our town. This was a good way to keep connected and to still be a presence, because a lot of people think a Board of Health is there for only COVID or only a certain crisis, and we’re not,” Llamas said. “We’re here for the long haul — for the small things, big things.”

Conway resident John Cordes greeted Llamas and O’Reilly at Town Hall with five pairs of his family’s and neighbor’s shoes to protect them against ticks while exploring with his dog.

“He always needs to be out in the woods,” said Cordes, who walks his dog on a 33-foot leash. “And you can’t just walk him in the road, he runs back and forth from one side of the road to the other.”

After every outing, Cordes checks his dog for ticks.

“We have a little station in my garage, I have a comb and I have these nice fine tweezers, and we just have to go over him carefully,” said Cordes, although his dog is “not always thrilled about being checked.”

By visitors sharing their experiences with health officials while their shoes are sprayed, Llamas said, “It gives us a chance to connect one-on-one with people and let them know that we’re here for them.”

The tick prevention pop-up events will continue at:

■Rowe Town Hall — Wednesday, July 26, from 3 to 6 p.m.

■Bernardston Senior Center — Thursday, July 27, from 9 a.m. to noon.

■Aubuchon and Shelburne Farm & Garden parking lot — Saturday, July 29, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

August and September pop-up events will be posted at frcog.org/tick-safety.

An earlier version of this article included an incorrect location for the July 27 tick prevention pop-up event. The event will be held at the Bernardston Senior Center from 9 a.m. to noon. Also, to clarify, permethrin — the insecticide that public health officials can spray on residents’ shoes to ward off ticks — is safe for humans to wear on their clothing but not to inhale or touch when wet.

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