Does Okeechobee County need mosquito control?

Okeechobee County Commissioners pondered the issue of mosquito control at their Thursday, Feb. 25 meeting.

Okeechobee is one of only six Florida counties that do not currently have some kind of mosquito control program. Sixty-one Florida counties have mosquito control programs, ranging in cost from $150,000 to $11 million.

Even neighboring Buckhead Ridge in Glades County has a mosquito control district.

Okeechobee Emergency Management director Mitch Smeykal told the commissioners he has been working with Clarke Environmental on the options for a mosquito control program.

“We have 80 species of mosquitoes in Florida,” he explained. “We have identified 30 species of mosquitoes in Okeechobee.”

Twelve of the species identified in Okeechobee County are known to vector for disease, he said. This includes a species of mosquito that has been known to carry the Zika virus.

Mosquito control issues have drawn more attention recently due to the Zika virus outbreak in South and Central America.

According to the Florida Department of Health, there have been 32 cases of Zika reported in Florida this year; all were travel related. None of the cases are in Okeechobee County. Three of those who tested positive for Zika are pregnant women.

Zika virus is transmitted by daytime-active mosquitoes, Mr. Smeykal said.

Mr. Smeykal said he attended the Dodd Short Course Introduction to Mosquito Control in January, which is a four-day, intensive class, with instruction 10-12 hours a day.

He said by Florida Statue, if a county does not have a Mosquito Control District, the responsibility for mosquito control falls to the county commission.

He said in order to receive state funding for mosquito control, the county must have a certified mosquito control director. Qualifications for the position vary by the size of the program.
For Okeechobee, the program would be considered “Tier III,” the minimum qualifications would be high school diploma, two years training and field experience and completion of the certification exams. Continued education is also required.

Mr. Smeykal said in order to receive state assistance, the mosquito control program must include source reduction, surveillance and identification, larva control, adult control, public education and record keeping.

“It’s not just spraying,” he said.

According to the state standards, spraying intervals depend on the number of mosquitoes documented.

For example, a landing count of 5 mosquitoes in one hour or a trap count of more than 25 mosquitoes in one night could indicate a need for some kind of mosquito control.

He said Okeechobee County already monitors mosquito population with traps.

He said during the spring and summer months it is not unusual for some of the traps to have counts of 500 or even in the thousands.

Determination for the need for spraying also depends on what species of mosquitoes are found in the traps, he continued.

State assistance varies from $50,000 to $120,000 depending on the size of the program, he said.

He said it is his recommendation that at least to start, the county consider contracting for mosquito control rather than trying to handle this in-house.

“Clarke is probably the biggest in the United States when it comes to vector control for mosquitoes,” he said.

There are a lot of factors to consider when developing a program, he continued.

For example, they may have to deal with “no spray zones.” There are a lot of people who don’t want people spraying for mosquitoes on their property,” he said.

“Different chemicals work better for different mosquitoes,” he said. “It really depends on what they are trying to kill.

“In the larger mosquito control districts, they are finding mosquitoes are becoming resistant to some of the chemicals,” he said.

In Okeechobee County, mosquito larvae control is difficult due to the amount of rural land. While trucks can be used for residential spraying, aerial spraying would be required for the agricultural areas.

He said in addition to spraying, options may include using “mosquito fish” to eat mosquito larvae.

“What time of day you spray makes a difference,” he added.

“I don’t think we can do the program ourselves, after seeing all the science and the training required for applicators,” he opined.

He said he did not think the county could handle mosquito control in-house and meet Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DACS) and public health requirements.

“My concern is all these chemicals. They were told back in Vietnam that Agent Orange was harmless,” said Commissioner Bryant Culpepper.

Mr. Smeykal said the products used must be licensed by DACS and the USDA.

“Millions in research have gone into that product before it has been approved,” he said.

“I know there is a need,” said Commissioner Culpepper. “We live in South Florida, and especially with the winter that we have had, we have a lot of standing water.”

“If people vaccinate their livestock, that can take care of the animal diseases,” said Mr. Smeykal, “but unfortunately there is no vaccine for the humans.”

“I was shocked at how little water it takes for a mosquito to breed. A capful of water is enough,” he said. He said anything holds standing water — be it a flower pot, a ditch or a tire — can become a mosquito breeding ground.

While some mosquitoes may only travel a short distance in their lifespan, some mosquitoes can travel 20 miles, he said.

“One option is a formal program. One option is informal when the counts get pretty high from our surveillance,” said County Administrator Robbie Chartier.

She said when the county did aerial spraying in 2010 — after a tropical storm resulted in a massive mosquito problem in the county — it cost about $60,000.

“There are informal programs that you deal with it when you feel it needs to be dealt with,” she said. “It always comes down to funding.”

In order to qualify for state funding, the county would need a formal program, she said.

“A lot of the bigger counties have their own mosquito control districts,” said Mr. Smeykal. These special taxing districts pay for the mosquito control programs for those areas.

“It really comes down to what level of service you want to provide,” said Mrs. Chartier.

“When mosquito control started, it started to eradicate malaria. It started to eradicate yellow fever,” said Mr. Smeykal.

Now with world travel, it has become a problem with infected persons bringing these diseases into the country.

“All it takes is for an infected person to be bitten by a mosquito here,” he said.

“If we outsource the program, do we still need a director?” said Commissioner Terry Burroughs.

“If we use our own money, no,” said Mrs. Chartier.

“If we use DACS money, I am still waiting on the answer to that,” said Mr. Smeykal “We probably will still need a director.”

“I always want to use someone else’s money,” said Commissioner Burroughs.

How much it will cost depends on what type of program the county wants.

Looking at the state contracted price, for twice a month spraying of areas along paved roads in the county March through October, the estimated cost is $350,000-$400,000 a year, he said.

Aerial spraying is more expensive.

Mr. Smeykal said March to October is the prime mosquito breeding season, but “if we get a tropical storm, that can change.”

“I guess first thing would be education to homeowners,” said Commission Chairman Frank Irby.

“There should be some responsibility with property owners to try to mitigate your mosquito problem. That should certainly be part of the program.

“We need to find the best way to get the word out regularly to get people to understand how little water is takes for mosquito to breed,” he said.

“Is most of the spraying in populated areas?” he asked. “Do you focus on the concentrations or just drive through all the roads and spray?”

Mr. Smeykal said some counties base spraying on nuisance calls.

“They will go out and do a site visit, look at the owner’s property and if they see there is a problem, they will put a trap out,” he said.

“They basically get the mosquitoes at the end of that, see what mosquitoes you have an how many you have. Sometimes it may be a source reduction (such as emptying standing water). That has a lot bigger part to play than people think,” he said.

“I grew up in the south and mosquitoes were part of living in the south,” said Chairman Irby.

“I would like to see a plan and the cost associated with it,” said Chairman Irby.

Three Florida Zika cases found in pregnant women

In an effort to keep Florida residents and visitors safe and aware about the status of the Zika virus, State Surgeon General and Secretary of Health Dr. John Armstrong issues regular  Zika virus updates.

On Feb. 24, he announced that of the travel-related cases confirmed in Florida, only three cases are still exhibiting symptoms. According to the CDC, symptoms associated with the Zika virus last between seven to ten days.

Based on CDC guidance, several pregnant women who have traveled to countries with local-transmission of Zika have received antibody testing and of those three have tested positive for a history of Zika virus infection. The CDC recommends that a pregnant woman with a history of Zika virus and her provider should consider additional ultrasounds. Out of respect of the privacy of these women, no counties or additional information will be shared. It is recommended that women who are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant postpone travel to Zika affected areas.

A total of 32 Zika cases have been reported in Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Hillsborough, Lee, Miami-Dade, Orange, Osceola, Santa Rose, Seminole and St. Johns counties.

State Surgeon General and Secretary of Health Dr. John Armstrong urges Floridians to drain standing water weekly, no matter how seemingly small. A couple drops of water in a bottle cap can be a breeding location for mosquitoes. Residents and visitors also need to use repellents when enjoying the Florida outdoors.

According to the CDC, Zika illness is generally mild with a rash, fever and joint pain. CDC researchers are examining a possible link between the virus and harm to unborn babies exposed during pregnancy.

Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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