Lawmakers back more funds for mosquito fight

BRANDON — In the wake of two fatal human cases of Eastern equine encephalitis, area legislators who came to the monthly meeting of the Brandon Leicester Salisbury Goshen Mosquito District here last week said they hope to move quickly to drum up funding for mosquito control.
State funding of mosquito surveillance has been cut to the point where it pays only for the one state employee who does all of the testing for mosquito-borne viruses, or arboviruses, like EEE and West Nile Virus in Vermont.
Given the likelihood that EEE and West Nile are here to stay, BLSG Board Chair Gary Meffe put out the call to area legislators and start the conversation about state funding.
“We want to help the legislators figure out what to do and we want them to help us,” Meffe said. “We don’t know what EEE will do into next year, but we want to be ready. We may be entering a new reality where mosquitoes are no longer a nuisance but a public health hazard.”
Present at the Oct. 4 meeting were Addison County Sens. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, and Harold Giard, D-Bridport; Rutland County Sens. Kevin Mullin (R), Peg Flory (R), and Bill Carris (D); and state Reps. Butch Shaw, R-Sudbury, Joe Acinapura, R-Brandon, Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, and Will Stevens, I-Shoreham.
Also on hand were House candidates for the new Brandon, Pittsford, Sudbury House district: Seth Hopkins (R) and Steve Carr (D); as well as Brandon selectboard Chair Devon Fuller, and representatives of the Lemon Fair Insect Control District Tom Baskett and Tom Vanacore.
State entomologist Alan Graham was on hand to field the lawmaker’s more technical questions.
The August onset of the first human EEE cases in Vermont, both fatal, and a ongoing issue with the less fatal but also serious West Nile Virus, demands an all around increase in mosquito control and the need for a more formal state-wide response to mosquito testing and surveillance, Meffe said.
An open discussion ensued among lawmakers getting up to speed on exactly what Graham does as the sole mosquito tester in the state and the testing limitations within Vermont. Ayer, a registered nurse who chairs the Senate Health and Welfare Committee,  pointed out that the EEE antibody was found in the deer herd last year all over the state. She urged a statewide approach despite the fact that the EEE cases and the mosquito pools that are tested are in the Brandon and Whiting area.
Graham is a state employee, but his position is funded through the federal U.S. Centers for Disease Control. But funding for Graham’s work, once $190,000, has been cut to just $50,000 in the last few years, just enough to cover his salary. Yet, according to the CDC, “every state should have, at a minimum, a functional arbovirus surveillance and response capability.”
Testing mosquitoes and regularly gathering data is critical to any arbovirus surveillance plan for determining the appropriate response to an arbovirus outbreak, and also for targeting vector suppression efforts, such as aerial spraying, according to the state’s Surveillance and Response Plan, which was updated this past June.
Meffe told the lawmakers that increased funding for Graham’s work is key to any plan that is introduced during the next legislative session.
“His work is critical,” Meffe said. “Before you can treat, you have to know where to treat and what to treat.”
Sen. Carris asked Graham what he would need.
“A couple of entomologists, working year-round, and a couple of seasonal workers to help operate the mosquito traps,” he replied.
But Graham said even more personnel would be needed before statewide testing would be possible.
“Travel is an issue,” he said. “It takes a long time to get around the state.”
Graham suggested that the board or the lawmakers talk to other states with more formalized vector control programs like Connecticut and find out how they operate.
Also, Vermont does not have the laboratory facilities to test for EEE (see accompanying story). Those samples are sent to New York and Connecticut. In fact, Graham said the contract with the New York lab dictates that he send samples from 318 mosquito pools, the testing of which would cost roughly $3,400. He said he wanted to send up to 500 samples, which could come from all over the state, but had to come down to 318 to stay within budget. It would have cost around $7,000 to test 500 samples.
Jewett was floored.
“That’s a frightening decision you had to make over $7,000,” he said.
Meffe agreed.
“To get a statewide system in place, we’re not talking about millions of dollars,” he said. “We’re talking about thousands.”
But it will also require coordination between the mosquito districts, the Department of Health, the Agency of Agriculture and the Legislature.ß
Outgoing Rep. Joe Acinapura has been at the forefront of mosquito control funding during his four terms. He is a longtime member of the House Appropriations Committee, and said he has spoken with committee Chair Martha Heath about the need for additional mosquito control and surveillance funding.
“She is ready to support whatever the delegations come up with,” he said.
Acinapura threw out a number: $500,000 for additional spraying in the spring through the summer, adding that it’s a purposely high estimate to allow negotiating for a lesser amount.
Carris said that ticks should be added to the list of nuisance insects needing surveillance in this case, citing the continued rise of Lyme disease cases in the state.
Sen. Flory suggested that Graham and the mosquito control boards draft a proposal modeled after vector management programs in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
“We’ve been reactive and localized for too long,” she said. “We need to identify the problem, the risks and the appropriate way to manage this and protect people’s lives and animals and the quality of life. It has gone beyond protecting a mosquito district. It’s the state’s problem.”
How the mosquito districts fit into a statewide program is another question. The Lemon Fair Mosquito Control district, which covers Cornwall and Bridport, has a $100,000 budget with some funds coming from the state for larvicide, in addition to local taxpayer dollars. The Lemon Fair district also has its own airplane for aerial spraying, which it lends to the BLGS. The BLGS mosquito district receives $57,000 from taxpayers in the four towns, while the state pays for larvicide treatment. The state funds from fees associated with boat registrations, but with those revenues have fallen since the recession began in 2008.
Meffe said the BLGS will need to ask for more money next season for a bare minimum program. He added that other towns such as Sudbury, Pittsford and Whiting have contacted him about joining the BLGS.
The lawmakers agreed that a program proposal needs to come within the month in order to get on the governor’s recommended list before the legislative session begins in January. But Mort Pierpont of the BLGS said someone needs to contact the Department of Health if any progress is to be made.
“I can’t get them to move on anything,” he said. “The mosquito season is ending and they are stalled.”
The legislative group called upon Ayer to take the lead and contact Health Commissioner Harry Chen, brief him on the legislators’ meeting with the mosquito districts and the need for a draft program proposal.
Overall, it was clear that area legislators will present a united front on the issue when the next session begins.
“You have sold the Legislature on the gravity of the problem, or else we wouldn’t be here,” Rep. Shaw said. 

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