The Suffolk County Legislature Tuesday overwhelmingly passed a bill giving the county a larger role in controlling ticks that transmit Lyme disease, which the bill's sponsor described as a "public health emergency."
The bill, drafted by Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk), passed 16-0, with one abstention. It requires Suffolk's division of vector control to draw up an action plan to deal with tick-borne diseases and update it annually.
County Executive Steve Bellone's office expressed support for Schneiderman's bill, but warned that a more detailed plan is needed.
"This is no easy fix," said Public Works Commissioner Gil Anderson. "This is something that's going to take a good deal of time and, probably, money."
Before the vote, frustrated residents and local officials rallied outside the legislature building in Riverhead in support of the bill, and voiced frustration and anger over an issue that has gained traction beyond the North and South Forks, including calls by a Hudson Valley senator to define Lyme disease as a problem that should be covered by workers' compensation for those who work outdoors.
Last year in Suffolk, there were 689 cases of Lyme disease, and while health officials stopped short of labeling the problem an epidemic, residents and local officials who came to Riverhead Tuesday did not.
"The county is under siege," East Hampton resident Ilissa Meyer told the legislature, noting that the white-footed mouse found in sheds and under porches is the prime carrier of ticks. "We have four different tick species. . . . They carry 19 different diseases."
North Haven Mayor Jeff Sander said his small village, on the water just north of Sag Harbor, is overwhelmed by deer and tick problems.
"We live in a beautiful place, but many of our residents are hesitant to use our trails or walk on the beaches," he said. " . . . It's really become an epidemic. It's not an easy thing to fix."
Schneiderman said almost everyone on the East End likely has a relative or a friend who has contracted some tick-borne illness. "In East Hampton and North Haven and Shelter Island and Southold . . . everyone is trying to grapple with what is essentially a public health emergency," he told advocates of Lyme disease treatment just before the legislature met. "I can't find anybody who isn't impacted by this."
Tick-borne illnesses have gotten the attention of other New York State elected officials.
Senate majority coalition co-leaders Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and Jeffrey Klein (D-Bronx) have created a task force to develop an action plan to deal with the issue. Sen. Terry Gipson (D-Dutchess) has bills in committee to cover Lyme disease under workers' comp and to require insurance companies to pay for long-term medical care for the treatment of Lyme and other tick-borne illnesses, including 30 days of intravenous antibiotics and 60 days of oral medication.
With Paul LaRocco