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For those flocking to local parks, beware: Tick season is upon us

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Dr. Scott Campbell, chief of the Suffolk Department of Health’s Arthropod-borne Disease Laboratory in Yaphank, talks about what people need to know to protect themselves from ticks during the summer season. Credit: Randee Daddona

People flocking to Long Island’s parks for some space and serenity during the COVID-19 pandemic are often unaware another danger is lurking in the lush green spaces.

Ticks, carrying Lyme disease and several other serious diseases, are everywhere. And for some, this is their favorite time of year.

“We know the number one tick-borne illness is Lyme disease, and that is transmitted primarily by nymph deer ticks, which start to come out in May and peak in June and July,” said Dr. Scott Campbell, an entomologist and chief of Suffolk County's Arthropod-borne Disease Lab in Yaphank. “But the risk really runs throughout the year.”

Long Island is home to three species of ticks. The blacklegged tick, also known as the deer tick, can carry Lyme disease, babesiosis, anaplasmosis and Powassan virus. Lone Star ticks can transmit ehrlichiosis, tularemia and Southern Tick Associated Rash Illness, while the American dog tick can carry Rocky Mount spotted fever.

Ticks in the nymph, or second stage, of development are so small that they are about the size of a poppy seed. That makes them difficult to spot.

“Ticks are not practicing social distancing,” said Brian Kelly, who runs East End Tick and Mosquito Control out of Southampton. “And they are found in the craziest places — dune grasses at the beach, at your town park, on the sides of the road.”

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Experts said that’s why education is so important. But public programs, usually held at schools and libraries, have been halted during the pandemic.

At the same time, more people are spending time in their backyards and venturing out to parks for walks and hikes where they can stay safely away from others.

And second homes on the east end of Long Island are becoming primary residences for people trying to escape the impact of COVID-19 in the city.

“I go down to local parks and I see hundreds of cars in the parking lot. I have never seen this before,” said Kelly, who has worked on tick and mosquito control for more than 20 years. “People are walking their dogs in the woods and encountering ticks, and they don’t know it.”

The growing number of ticks on Long Island is directly linked to the resurgence in wildlife, said Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, an entomologist and senior extension associate with Cornell University who does work for the New York State Integrated Pest Management program.

“It’s all anecdotal, but we just know 20 years ago we didn’t have such terrible tick problems,” she said. “But we also didn’t have as many deer and hawks and foxes and woodchucks and turkeys.”

Lyme disease is the most common disease that comes from ticks, with more than 33,000 cases across the country in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency has said only a fraction of cases are reported, and studies show the actual number of cases might be closer to 300,000.

More than 2,400 of those cases in 2018 were in the state of New York.

People who have contracted Lyme disease through a tick bite may develop a bull's-eye rash and experience flu-like symptoms, fever and joint pain. Long-term effects can include swollen and painful joints and heart problems.

Tickborne diseases are often treated with antibiotics and range from mild symptoms that can be treated at home to severe infections that require a hospital stay, according to the CDC.

Long Island’s ticks also have very different characteristics.

“A deer tick is very lethargic,” Kelly said. “It will just wait on the edge of a trail or a long piece of grass for weeks until something comes by it can attach onto.”

The more aggressive Lone Star tick will bite you as soon as it crawls on you, Gangloff-Kaufmann said.

Not all ticks carry disease, but experts recommend people check themselves and their pets for ticks every time they come back inside.

“Whether or not you get [a disease] is a matter of chance,” Gangloff-Kaufmann said. “You need to find the tick quickly and get it off of you.”

Prevention is key, Campbell said. He suggested people who go hiking or work in a garden treat their shoes and clothing — but not skin — with Permethrin, an insecticide that kills ticks. Sprays with DEET can be used directly on skin.

“Do a tick check while you are out and about, when you get home and the following morning,” he said. “Sometimes ticks are missed, and most of the pathogens transmitted by ticks take 24 to 48 hours.”

After spotting the tick, remove it with fine tweezers and place it in a small empty pill container with rubbing alcohol, he suggested. Record where you found it on your body and the date.

“You want to keep this as a medical reference,” he said. “It can take from seven to 10 days, sometimes up to 30 days, for any illness or symptoms to occur.”

How to avoid ticks

Tips on avoiding ticks and the diseases they carry while enjoying time outdoors:

  • Wear light-colored clothing.
  • Wear long pants and sleeves.
  • Tuck your pants into your socks.
  • Tuck your shirt into your pants.
  • Use repellents as directed.
  • Walk along the center of trails.
  • Conduct frequent clothing checks.
  • Once home, dry clothing on the highest temperature setting for 10 minutes to kill any ticks.
  • Carefully inspect your body for ticks.
  • Keep pets from tick-infested areas and check them before entering the house.

SOURCE: Suffolk County Department of Health

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