Top state health officials are considering whether Vermont needs to test adult mosquito populations on its own, instead of outsourcing samples to laboratories in other states.
The move would likely shorten the turnaround time between the state catching mosquitoes and knowing if they are carrying deadly viruses like the eastern equine encephalitis that has killed numerous animals and two humans in Vermont this year alone.
“It would make sense that if we had information sooner we could warn people sooner,” Vermont Health Commissioner Harry Chen said Monday.
This summer, Richard Hollis Breen, 86, of Brandon and Scott Sgorbati, 49, of Sudbury both died after being infected with EEE from mosquito bites. Both men lived in or near a mosquito district that sprayed for adult mosquitoes from the ground on a regular basis.
But, following the death of Breen, the state health department elevated the human risk and did the state’s first aerial sprayings in Brandon and Whiting for adult mosquitoes that could be infected with the virus.
Never before had the state engaged in aerial spraying and never before had it had human cases of EEE.
But as early as last summer the health department knew of the existence of EEE in Vermont, after 19 emus on Breen’s farm in Brandon mysteriously died. Blood samples of one of the dead emus tested positive for EEE.
But because test results came to the state’s only mosquito-tester entomologist — Alan Graham of the Agency of Agriculture — shortly before winter, and federal funding that was cut more than 75 percent since 2009, aerial spraying and a thorough response to the emu deaths wasn’t done.
Graham said in an interview last month that there are fewer mosquito traps set and he’s the only employee gathering samples for testing.
Last year, because of some available funding, Graham got results weekly and viruses started showing up in July and August.
But this year, because of funding cuts and the lengthy development of a contract with a New York laboratory that agreed to test Vermont’s samples, the results were delayed for a month.
Graham said he started stockpiling samples instead of sending them out.
EEE could have been detected sooner if not for the stockpiling.
Chen said Monday, the state is working to not have that happen again.
“We are looking into other things to shorten the turnaround time,” Chen said. “For instance, one of them might be to make a decision to, rather than batch the samples, send them as soon as we get them and put procedures in place to get them sent out sooner,” and that goes for both mosquito and human samples, he said.
“The better we oil the machine the more likely a rapid turn around time we will have, at least for mosquitoes,” Chen said.
The state Health Department is currently having conversations with the Centers for Disease Control and the state Agriculture Agency to develop a plan for studying mosquitoes sooner and responding sooner, according to Chen.
Graham said a lab at the University of Vermont in Burlington might be capable of testing Vermont mosquito samples, but the state has to get a certification to test for EEE.
He said Vermont currently has a “loose relationship” with an out-of-state lab to test 318 samples before the end of this year if needed.
Chen said whenever the testing occurs, it has to happen soon.
“Based on that information we can determine how high our level of warning is and that’s related to the number of mosquitoes that test positive for EEE. It would make sense that if we had information sooner, we could warn people sooner,” Chen said.
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