Reno; and New Haven: bed bugs cause unsuspecting officials to run around like confused flour beetles

by nobugsonme on July 20, 2007 · 2 comments

in bed bug bites, bed bug blame game, bed bug detection, bed bug education, bed bug epidemic, bed bug treatment, bed bugs, bed bugs in hotels, best practices, connecticut, furniture, mattresses, misdiagnoses, new haven, spread of bed bugs, usa

In Reno, they have so few bed bug cases, that the health department called three residents of an apartment complex to tell them their building is infested. (New Yorkers, are you laughing?!)

Unfortunately, as Geralda Miller of the Reno Gazette Journal reports, the advice being given to tenants is not great:

“They’re an indoor critter,” [Jeff Knight, Nevada State Entomologist] said. “Get rid of the mattress. Get rid of the infested bed frame and thoroughly treat everything else. Bedding has to get a hot wash and dry.”

Those were the instructions [Building Manager Rhonda] Mathews said she gave her tenants.

“Get rid of them or they’re not living here,” she said.

Mathews said she has spent more than $100 to treat each infested unit and the 10 surrounding ones.

Knight said it is important that pest control companies do a thorough job to get rid of the bugs.

The Washoe County Health Department gets “one or two” valid complaints of bed bugs a month. PCO treatment for bed bugs cost the building manager $100 per unit. I know the cost of living in Reno is lower than in NYC, Boston, or San Francisco, but this seems very low. I hope the PCO is trained to treat bed bugs specifically, which may not be the case in a place with very few cases.

If the state entomologist is really telling folks to simply throw away mattresses and frames, and wash bedding (what about all the other clothing and linens in the home?) then they may be seeing a lot more cases soon. Because others will pick up those discarded items. And because clothing and other items can harbor bed bugs, allowing them to continue breeding and spread further.

Across the country, in New Haven, Channel 3 reports that residents of 15 Housing Authority apartments have been relocated to a hotel while their apartments are “fumigated” and “decontaminated.” The terminology there may well relate more to common ideas about pest control practices (killing bugs = “fumigation”) rather than the actual techniques used.

I was very excited to read the following words:

[Channel 3 Eyewitness News Reporter Erika] Arias reported that the Housing Authority is taking the outbreak seriously. [Resident Alberta] Silverspoon said that as soon as she alerted the authority, immediate action was taken.

Quick and drastic action on the HA’s part seems good. But they need to be cautious now: there’s significant danger residents will have moved the bed bugs to the hotel, and they can certainly reinfest their homes when they move back in, so I hope the Housing Authority knows what it’s doing and takes some time to educate and provide necessary supplies (XL ziplocs, mattress and pillow covers, even laundry services for evacuated items) to make sure this doesn’t happen.

It makes me wonder, are hotels going to start asking if prospective customers are bed bug refugees?

The New Haven Register
also covered this story. Here, we learn the building is called Crawford Manor, is on Park Avenue, and has 109 units (only 15 identified as infested).

However, this second article was more disturbing. It suggested housing officials were rushing to blame the infestation on one tenant:

Housing Authority Executive Director Jimmy Miller said Wednesday the problem began in a unit of a female tenant who is known to carry her belongings around in bags and owns a few cats. He did not identify the tenant. The city’s anti-blight Livable City Initiative Bureau is being asked to condemn the unit, he said.

“It’s a very serious thing and it’s quite an undertaking,” Miller said.

Miller, who has been running the agency for about 18 months, said this is the first occurrence during his tenure. He did not know of any others in recent history.

“It’s not something that would go unnoticed. You do get bites from them,” he said.

Actually, some claim that most people are not allergic and so do not react (in other words, they neither see bite marks nor experience any itching). Even if “most” is inaccurate, it’s certainly true of “many.” There’s a wide range of reactions from serious allergic reactions that land people in hospital, to dime-sized welts and severe itching, to what looks like mosquito bites, to tiny red dots, to nothing.

So if HA officials are basing their ideas of how bed bugs spread from one unit to another, or which units are infested, on whether people experience bites, their data is liable to be inaccurate. There will doubtless be bed bugs in other units, not reported, maybe not even noticed.

The housing authority was alerted when tenants from another unit detected the bugs and reported the problem.

Miller said the authority has not identified the cause of the outbreak, but officials believe the infestation spread as the female tenant moved bags around common areas or as visitors entered and left.

“They don’t usually travel person-to-person and they don’t normally travel more than 100 feet,” he said.

The housing authority first had to have the female tenant’s unit cleaned and her furniture will be destroyed.

Thirteen other tenants were housed temporarily in area hotels Tuesday night and about half were able to return to Crawford Manor Wednesday. Authority staff gave them meals and made sure everyone on medication stayed on their regimens.

Crawford Manor is a mixed-population development. Miller said it is going to cost the authority approximately $80 per unit to decontaminate the entire building. It was unclear Wednesday how much alternate lodging, meals and staff overtime would cost.

The tenant in the unit that set off the infestation was relocated from Brookside, one of several housing complexes on West Rock targeted for revitalization.

Miller said the authority will be implementing a policy for sterilizing tenant belongings before relocations occur.

“We’re on top of it,” he said.

Good to know they’re on top of it. (I’m impressed by the $80 per unit cost. But the city probably has a contract of some kind.)

I hope they also educate themselves and tenants about how bed bugs are picked up and spread. Because although bed bugs may not walk more than 100 feet, they will hitchhike on anyone: any tenant, visitor, or employee could have brought them in.

I am troubled by the way in which New Haven housing authorities want to pin the blame on an easy target: a woman who has cats and carries her stuff around in bags.

First, the fact the woman has “a few cats” is irrelevant: we can get bed bugs from the abandoned nests of bats, birds, and even rats, but they do not come from cats. If a human is present, they don’t even want to bite the cats. So I am not sure why people are obsessed with the woman’s cats, as if they were a factor. Presumably the cats living in a high-rise do not go out, so they did not pick up hitchhiking bed bugs and bring them in.

Second, it is clear that if someone did have bed bugs and carried their stuff around in bags, they’d have more chance of carrying bed bugs to more locations than a person who, for example, traveled light. But it really does not matter whether the “bags” are laptop cases, Prada bags, messenger bags, or shopping bags.

It is true that clutter allows bed bugs to easily hide and breed. But it does not cause them to appear.

This sounds to me like a witch hunt: “15 units are infested, one is the home of a woman who has a few cats and carries stuff around, therefore, let’s blame her.” It’s easy, but it’s not necessarily scientific. Even if her unit now has more bugs than any other unit, I am not sure it could be proven she brought bed bugs in, or that she was “bed bug ground zero.”

She may be the source in this building, she may not. But the real problem with pinning the blame on someone is that it makes others feel they’re off the hook. The truth is, whoever brought them into the building, caught them somewhere. It’s an epidemic. Maybe they caught them in New Haven, maybe they brought them in from a vacation, school, workplace, or hospital. The person who brings them into the building is not the cause. Moving them out does not prevent reinfestation. And they also implied that “tenant zero” was relocated there from another (presumably infested) HA building.

More to the point, did 15 people from this building just infest a local hotel? I’d like to know what precautions were taken to avoid that situation. This is the problem with the blame game: everyone who has bed bugs got them from someone else (unless they got them from a bat, a bird, or a rat). Who are you gonna blame?

We need public education, assistance for people in low-income housing (with supplies and treatment costs–besides the PCO), and prompt PCO treatment.
We need government awareness, better policies, funding, and willingness to act (New Haven got a lot of that right).
We need bed bug aggregate pheromone traps, more and better pesticides and other treatment methods (thermal, cryonite, etc.).
But we don’t need the pointless and inaccurate blame game.


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