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COVID-19 grabs headlines, but health officials note West Nile virus a mosquito bite away

Pandemic has slowed testing efforts as one region of Utah reports first positive sample in an insect

SHARE COVID-19 grabs headlines, but health officials note West Nile virus a mosquito bite away

Kirsten Wilson, Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District vector control technician, collects a mosquito trap to bring back to the Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District lab for mosquito sorting and counting in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 23, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The COVID-19 pandemic has not only wreaked havoc with everyday lives, it’s also thrown a wrench in efforts to battle another pesky bug — the mosquito-borne West Nile virus.

But as the state saw its first positive test for the disease in a sample from the Uinta Basin last week, local health officials say the pace of testing will be picking up along the Wasatch Front.

Ary Faraji, executive director of the Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District, said the entire mosquito monitoring and testing process has been complicated by the novel coronavirus outbreak. Testing for West Nile by the Utah Department of Health is only about 5% of what was completed in June and mid-July 2019.

Faraji said a lack of personnel and social distancing measures that staggered work times and limited working in teams has impacted the Salt Lake department.

“We don’t have the luxury of working from home, we have to actually get out into the field where the mosquitoes are,” Faraji said. “If we could kill mosquitoes from home that would be very, very easy for us, but we have to get out.”

West Nile virus is transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected mosquito and can cause serious illness, particularly for individuals older than 50 and those whose immune systems are compromised, according to Hannah Rettler, an epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health.


Todd Haskew, Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District vector control technician, collects a water sample from a mosquito source, looking for mosquito larvae, in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 23, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Rettler said most human cases occur in Utah between June and October, but the good news is most people — 70% to 80% — don’t develop any symptoms.

Another problem created by pandemic was a shortage of testing equipment for the local mosquito abatement districts.

There has been a shortage of the plastics and equipment used in testing, so there’s been a bit of a backlog in getting the proper equipment, Faraji said, though this too is starting to be resolved as manufacturers have started to ramp up production.

This issue has also impacted the Davis County Mosquito Abatement District.

“Right now we are struggling a bit here to do our testing. We were having a lot of trouble getting the plastics needed for our equipment because of the coronavirus,” said facility manager Gary Hatch, explaining that due to the backlog of plastic orders they tried to use off-brand ones that ended up damaging equipment.

Hatch said they are trying to get someone to fix it, but this has also been delayed because of the pandemic.

 “We were hoping we’d be up and running this week but it looks like we are not going to make it so we may run our samples to the state health lab,” he said.

There have been no confirmed human cases of West Nile virus this year, but the Utah Department of Health and mosquito abatement districts like Davis County and Salt Lake City are urging Utahns to take steps to protect themselves from potentially dangerous bites.

“Unfortunately the general public has kind of accepted that West Nile virus is happening and it’s happening every year and they kind of forget about it,” Faraji said. “We really try to relay the message that mosquito control is a job for everyone.”


Todd Haskew, Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District vector control technician, collects mosquito larvae from a water sample in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 23, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

He emphasized the community can significantly help prevent West Nile virus by eliminating bodies of standing water on their property as these can create a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

He pointed to bird baths, pet dishes and tires or wheelbarrows stationed in a backyard that could be collecting water.

“Every little thing that residents can do on their own properties will go a long ways and not just assist us in the mosquito abatement districts, but also assist the entire community as a whole,” he said. “Public health is really a job for everyone and we expect everyone to be doing their part.”

The only place to test positive for the West Nile virus so far this year is a pool in the Uinta Basin, which was discovered Monday, according to Rettler. That’s not to say they aren’t elsewhere, though the state has a structure in place to scout for additional outbreaks.

“We have a pretty robust surveillance system that we work together from the state, our local health department partners, the mosquito abatement districts, our tribal partners,” Rettler said. “There is a statewide collaborative effort between lots of different agencies that contribute to surveillance.”

These surveillance efforts are largely conducted on the local level by the mosquito abatement districts, which include setting and collecting traps in the field, identifying the mosquito species present and checking for disease, according to Faraji.

This is done by taking a sample of the mosquitoes in a trap and testing them for the presence of West Nile virus. Some districts send the samples to the state health department for testing, but others like the Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District, are able to test within their own department.

Rettler explained that one in 150 people who are infected nationwide will develop severe symptoms that can adversely impact one’s central nervous system, inflame the brain and cause other serious conditions, which is why it’s important to be careful.

The number of cases that occur in the state each year varies widely.

The Utah Department of Health says there were 21 confirmed human cases in 2019, but Rettler said cases another year peaked at 150. Two people died of West Nile virus in 2019.

“We absolutely don’t want to add to people’s fear of being outside, this is something that thankfully is not a huge number of West Nile cases that we see each year, but it’s something we want people to be aware of and protect themselves,” Rettler said.

Tips for avoiding mosquito bites and potential exposure to West Nile virus:

  • Wear long sleeves, pants and socks while outdoors, especially during dawn or dusk, which are peak biting times for many mosquitos.
  • Consider rescheduling outdoor activities that occur during these peak times.
  • Keep windows, screens and doors in good condition.
  • Report bodies of stagnant water to a local mosquito abatement district.
  • Remove or frequently change standing bodies of water.
  • Wear mosquito repellant approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention