By Peter Boody
Suffolk County needs to boost the testing capacities of its Arthropod-Borne Disease Laboratory so its Department of Public Works and Health Department can better target their resources in the fight to control diseases spread by ticks, County Legislator Bridget Fleming told her colleagues on the legislature’s Health Committee this week.
Seeking to win support for a 2017-2019 capital budget proposal to spend $100,000 on additional equipment for the lab, the Sag Harbor-based legislator made the case as she hosted a presentation before the Health Committee on Thursday, May 5 in Riverhead.
“Smart people” at the Health Department and the Public Works Department, she said, “recognize that we need a data-driven, really scientifically based understanding of what’s out there before we can design a really sensible and effective approach to attack this human health threat.”
Ms. Fleming later said in an interview she had lobbied County Executive Steve Bellone to include funding for lab improvements in his capital spending plan. Her goal in hosting Thursday’s presentation, she added, was to educate her colleagues about the health threat posed by ticks and win support for the proposal.
The presentation featured Scott Campbell, the director of the lab, and registered nurse Deborah Maile, the director of infection prevention at Southampton Hospital, where she runs the hospital’s tick hot line.
The hospital set up its Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center and the hot line (631-726-TICK) in 2013, Ms. Maile said, after she told the hospital CEO she was seeing “an enormous amount of positives” in the test results she was reporting from the hospital to New York State for Lyme disease, erlichiosis, babesiosis and anaplasmosis.
Dr. Campbell described how he plans to expand and improve the lab’s testing public sites for tick population densities and pathogens, as suggested in a recent Department of Health Services report.
He drew critical questioning from one Health Committee member, Legislator Robert Trotta of Smithtown.
“What are you going to do — I mean, it’s insects — short of us killing them all with pesticides?” Mr. Trotta asked.
“We have to know where the risk is highest,” Dr. Campbell said.
“I’m missing the end point here,” Mr. Trotta said after a brief back-and-forth. “So there’s more ticks in Huntington than there is in Montauk; so you spray more in Huntington?”
Having the capacity to do more of its own testing, rather than getting help from federal and state agencies that have limited resources and a much broader focus, would allow the lab “to look at Suffolk County and only Suffolk County,” from the west end to the East End, Dr. Campbell said.
He argued that better, more precise data would let the county to find out where the risks of tick-borne illness are highest in public lands across all 10 towns in Suffolk County and develop highly targeted treatment plans.
The plans would cover a range of approaches, from clearer pathways in particular public parts and better public education efforts to spraying with insecticides.
But Mr. Trotta remained skeptical. “I just don’t see spending all this money” and “what the outcome would be,” he said. “There are ticks and they’re everywhere.”
“From a medical perspective, one person with Lyme disease costs $100,000,” said the chairman of the committee, Dr. William Spencer of Centerport, an ear, nose and throat pediatric specialist.
If approved, the capital project for the lab would be “the very first time we would have a dedicated funding stream for research” to investigate the many factors that raise the risk to humans of tick-borne diseases, Legislator Fleming said.
She added that the county has never had the resources “that allow us to have a real data set with regard to what is happening: which ticks are carrying which diseases, where, and in what stages of life … We can talk until the cows come home, or the deer come home,” but without more specific data, “we’re not going to have a real strategy that’s going to have teeth and that’s going to get to some solution.”
“Didn’t the DEC do a big study on this?” asked Mr. Trotta.
“There has never been a study that’s focused on the problems of Suffolk County,” Ms. Fleming replied, “and Suffolk County is suffering under these problems more than many, many other counties throughout New York. So we need a dedicated approach right here in Suffolk County.”
Ms. Maile of the hospital’s Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center told the committee that the hospital’s goal was to educate both the public and health care providers. “A lot of people don’t know how to treat this,” she said. Because of the subtlety of symptoms, and because there are a growing number of illnesses caused by ticks, “It’s not a simple disease anymore,” she said.
“What we’re thinking is that, in the future, what we would like is a tick center where people would call and where we could send them right now,” she said. As it is, “sometimes it takes a little while to get to see a doctor.”
During the committee’s public comment period, before Ms. Fleming’s presentation, North Haven Mayor Jeff Sander urged the panel to consider helping North Haven with its tick problems.
A more aggressive deer hunt, and two seasons of deploying 4-Poster baiting stations that kill ticks on the heads and necks of deer as they feed on corn, may be helping. The problem is the village lacks the resources to conduct definitive tests to assess results.
“We’ve noticed at least visually that” the reduced deer population and the 4-Posters “seem to have diminished the density” of ticks in the village. “The thing we need help with and the thing we don’t do very well is figuring out how we’re doing. We need a measurement program that can do that.”
He asked that the county help the village with the “collection, measurement and testing of ticks for the degree of infection.”
Noting that a Department of Health Service task force recently called for a tick surveillance program to measure populations and pathogens, he asked Dr. Campbell to include North Haven among the 10 sites across the county where sampling will be conducted.
Later Ms. Fleming asked Dr. Campbell if he’d heard Mayor Sander’s plea.
“I heard,” he said.