People have taken extra precautions to avoid making themselves vulnerable to COVID-19. They wear masks and gloves when in public places.
But social distancing outdoors can come with its own set of risks — researchers say watch out for ticks.
Beaches and parks have become popular places to social distance to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But Sara Tyghter says she has noticed that people are not as careful as they should be when enjoying the outdoors.
“A lot of people are really hyper-focused on social distancing, and doing the correct things to fight coronavirus, and rightfully so, but I am very much concerned that they are not really doing the necessary steps to prevent being bitten by a tick.”
Tyghter works for the Global Lyme Alliance in Stamford. The group does research, education and outreach to help prevent tick-borne diseases.
“Connecticut does have an increase in the number of ticks, and we’ve been seeing that year to year.”
Connecticut and Long Island are hotspots for tick-borne illnesses, like Lyme disease.
Dr. Scott Campbell heads Suffolk County's Arthropod-borne Disease Laboratory in Yaphank.
“When it comes to Suffolk County, approximately 600 cases are identified. CDC did a study and found that most cases are not identified, or reported, so we know that this number is underreported.”
That makes identifying the symptoms of Lyme disease even more important.
“Typically, it’s a summertime flu: malaise, achiness, muscle achiness, fever, and then there are 50 to 60% of people that will get a rash from the bite site.”
It takes 24 hours for a tick to transmit Lyme disease.
Most recover quickly, but 20% of people can be left with long-term disabilities like stiff joints, impaired memory and facial nerve palsy.
While all of that could sound scary, Tygher says preventing Lyme disease isn’t complicated.
“We definitely want people to get outside and enjoy the outdoors, but being ‘tick aware’ is very important.”
Being “tick aware” means covering your neck, wearing long sleeves, applying tick repellent, tucking pant legs into long socks and throwing dirty clothes in the dryer after a hike. That’ll remove and kill ticks – they hate dry heat.
Chris Fuentes, who owns Ranger Ready Repellents in Norwalk, is predicting a high number of Lyme disease cases this season.
“This year we are pretty fearful that there will be a big crop of ticks. We’ve seen this happen in the past, and it seems the indicators are now, because of the weather, heavy rain, this spring is going to produce a fair number of ticks, especially in the beach areas.”
Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming of Sag Harbor says she’s also concerned this is going to be a bad year for ticks.
“The good news about Lyme and other tick-borne diseases is that they are entirely preventable if people have the information they need to take care of themselves.”
Fleming helped facilitate a county-run study last year that showed infection rates of tick-borne diseases in Suffolk County. Her district in eastern Long Island was among the most affected.
She says while coronavirus has Long Islanders a little distracted right now, avoiding Lyme disease is something we have more control over.
“While we’re in this coronavirus crisis and you want to compare the two, with corona, you can’t see what will potentially make you sick, but ticks you can see for the most part!”
Check your body for ticks, head to toe, front to back, ticks like to hide! And do the same with pets.
“The parks are being very heavily used, people are getting outdoors, and that’s a good thing. We want people to be outdoors, in the sunlight, fresh air. All those things are very good for mental and physical health. But, realize when you do that, you’re going into tick country.”
And now’s the time to be vigilant: Health professionals say tickborne diseases can take a toll on a person’s immune system, and make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.