Grappling with Ticks Times Review hosts discussion on local epidemic


With the spread of tick-borne illnesses reaching epidemic proportions on Long Island, more than 60 residents attended a forum last Wednesday to discuss the public health crisis and the measures being taken to safeguard the community. “Grappling with Ticks” was the third in a series of 10 panel discussions on newsworthy topics affecting Southold and Riverhead towns hosted by Times Review Media Group.

Content director Grant Parpan, who moderated the event, called the discussion “essential” prior to introducing the panel: Stony Brook University researcher Jorge Benach; Dr. Anna-Marie Wellins of the Medical Advisory Panel of the Regional Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital; Jeff Standish, Southold Town’s director of public works; Craig Jobes, environmental analyst for Southold Town; April Boitano, president of Tick Wise Education Inc; and Jennifer Petrocelli, general manager of The Preston House & Hotel, who suffers from Lyme disease and advocates for awareness and treatment.

The multi-layered, two-hour conversation zeroed in on three main talking points: health and epidemiology, hunting and the role of deer in the spread of tick-borne infections, and actionable advice for protection against disease.

An engorged deer tick. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Lyme testing and the great unknown

When it comes to the types of tick-borne illnesses Long Island residents are being diagnosed with, Lyme disease is still at the top of the list.

But for every 10 cases of Lyme, one other tick-borne disease is diagnosed, such as babesiosis, which is also on the rise on Long Island, Dr. Anna-Marie Wellins explained. Its symptoms include fever, fatigue, muscle aches and occasionally the characteristic “bull’s-eye” rash. If left untreated, the infection can spread to the joints, heart and nervous system, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In general, to transmit Lyme disease an infected tick needs to be attached for at least 36 hours, however, infections can be transferred more quickly.

Early detection of Lyme remains a challenge for doctors.

“The traditional test is not going to show anything for a month,” Dr. Wellins said. “Lyme is tricky because it is not a point-of-cure test that you can give when someone walks in the office to say ‘I have Lyme, or I don’t have Lyme.’ ”

Drs. Jorge Benach and Anna-Marie Wellins at the Times Review Talks discussion April 24. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)

One tip recommended by the panelists is, if possible, to conceal the tick in a container and take it to the doctor for further evaluation after a bite.

The first line of treatment is often a round of antibiotic, typically doxycycline. Dr. Wellins said it is common to be administered doxycycline, especially when exhibiting flu-like symptoms in the summer. That protocol is based on New England Journal of Medicine research, she said.

“I don’t wait and most providers don’t wait,” she said. “If you have flu-like symptoms in the summer, that is a tick-borne disease … The flu is in February; the flu isn’t in July. We treat based on symptoms and we won’t wait for a [blood] test. I am not going to take that chance with a patient.”

Dr. Wellins recommends those given doxycycline take the full course of the antibiotic and not to stop after a couple days or if symptoms subside. Additional blood tests are available for other tick-borne illnesses, she added.

Stony Brook University researcher Dr. Jorge Benach echoed that these antibiotics can prevent the disease from spreading in the body, but noted that more research needs to be done on the long-term treatment of Lyme and other tick-borne illnesses.

“What is very clear is … treatment with long-term antibiotics are not warranted,” Dr. Benach said. “There are studies that have been done independently that show that there’s a percentage of patients with Lyme that are treated that go on to have Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome. We do not know its origin … That is the one area where, if I was doling out money to researchers, that I would put my money in … It is what is least known about all of this.”

Jennifer Petrocelli of The Preston House in Riverhead talks about the challenges of living with Lyme disease. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)

Jennifer Petrocelli, general manager of The Preston House & Hotel who was diagnosed with Lyme disease two years ago and advocates for awareness, has a personal investment in long-term treatment. She has traveled the world, from Arizona to Germany, in search of a cure for her symptoms, which she said include memory loss and joint pain.

“I have tried everything from antibiotics to IV therapy … It gets very expensive,” she said.

Ms. Petrocelli plans to discuss alternative treatments at an upcoming symposium on Lyme disease at the Sea Star Ballroom at the Long Island Aquarium Saturday, May 18.

Southold Town public works director Jeff Standish discusses the town's deer management program. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)

Hunting at the heart of Southold’s tick efforts

The issue of ticks and the spread of tick-borne illness goes hand-in-hand with deer, which carry the parasites.

Jeff Standish, Southold Town’s director of public works, and Craig Jobes, the town’s environmental analyst, discussed how the issue was being addressed at the local level.

Southold formed its Deer Management Task Force in 2007 to combat the repercussions of an unchecked deer population. In the years since, all town-owned land has been opened up to hunting, Mr. Standish said. In 2008, the first year of the program, roughly 70 deer were harvested. That number has steadily climbed to a record high of 339 in the 2018-19 hunting season.

Mr. Standish noted that the jump didn’t necessarily indicate a surge in the deer population. Since the first year, the town has acquired more land for hunting and the state decreased the distance bow hunters must maintain from dwellings from 500 to 150 feet, which made an additional 110 acres accessible for hunting in 2014.

“The only way to take care of this problem is to be able to get closer to houses because the deer have moved in around everybody’s houses,” Mr. Standish said. “The biggest hurdle we have … is that the town only owns so much property. The private [homeowners] need to open up their properties.”

Mr. Standish said the hunting effort in Southold’s Bayview area has been among the most successful due to the large amount of town-owned land in that neighborhood. The town is currently encouraging owners of five or more acres to grant access to licensed, registered bow hunters. While the town can’t authorize hunting on private land, the department of public works can connect hunters and interested homeowners who wish to participate in the program during the season, which runs from Oct. 1 to Jan. 31. Homeowners may also partner with their neighbors to permit hunting closer to their homes, Mr. Standish said.

Deer graze in a property off Main Bayview Road in Southold in 2015. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Shotgun hunting for deer is allowed for two weeks in January, only on properties of 10 acres or more, and the original 500-foot distance from dwellings applies.

Attempting a census of the deer population has proven another obstacle, he noted. East Hampton has attempted, with mixed results, to calculate the number of deer in its jurisdiction using costly measures such as helicopters surveying the land using infrared technology.

Last fall, the town department of public works began a deer census with the help of 12 volunteers, who tracked the number of deer spotted from Laurel to Orient Point on three separate occasions. The calculated average was 1,200 deer, though Mr. Jobes estimated the actual number is likely much higher.

“It is difficult to pinpoint where the deer are because they move,” Mr. Standish said.

There is also an online tracker that allows residents to report deer sightings on Southold Town’s website.

Spraying is another strategy measure the town has used to stave off the infestation of ticks at public parks and beaches. A pilot program was conducted last year, with some success, on town-owned property near the Mattituck Little League field and a walking trail. But the town has not yet looked into spraying larger areas, such as beaches.

Upcoming informational events

Tick-Borne Disease: What You Need to Know

Monday, May 6 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.

Shelter Island Public Library, 37 North Ferry Road, Shelter Island

Call 631-749-0042 to register shelterislandpubliclibrary.org

Tick-Borne Disease: Educational Symposium

Saturday, May 18 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Sea Star Ballroom, Long Island Aquarium, 431 East Main St., Riverhead

Tickets $55; available at tickwise.org

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