Towns curtail outdoor activities at night to deal with the threat of mosquito-borne illness
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The elevated threat of mosquito-borne illnesses in Northborough has Algonquin Regional High School athletic director Fran Whitten scrambling to reschedule nighttime football and soccer games to get players and spectators off the fields before dusk.
Northborough is one of six area communities listed by the state as being particularly at risk for Eastern equine encephalitis after a third case of the potentially deadly illness was confirmed in Massachusetts.
In August, a man in Westborough died of the illness.
Westborough is the only area community listed by the state Department of Public Health as having a critical risk for the EEE virus.
However, the adjacent communities of Hopkinton, Northborough, Shrewsbury, Southborough, and Upton have been listed as being at high risk for the disease, said Anne Roach, a spokeswoman for the state agency.
The Department of Public Health has recommended the communities close parks early and reschedule school sports and other outdoor activities to daylight hours, when the risk of mosquito bites is lower.
Several towns, including Northborough, are taking the warning seriously, and curtailing nighttime activities outdoors until the first frost kills off the insects.
“I never thought I would be wishing for cold weather early, but as soon as we get that first hard frost, we can go back to nights,” Whitten said.
Football games usually played under the lights at Shrewsbury High School on Friday nights are being rescheduled to Saturday afternoons. Hopkinton has pushed game times up two hours, and is either canceling or rescheduling all other outdoor events on public property to between a half-hour before sunset and a half-hour after sunrise.
“Fight the bite; that’s our motto,” said Dr. Michael Hirsch, acting commissioner of public health for Shrewsbury.
Hirsch heads up a regional board of health covering Worcester, West Boylston, Holden, Leicester, Millbury, and Shrewsbury, all of which are listed by the state as being at high risk for the spread of West Nile virus.
“We are trying not to panic the public, but the recommendations point to personal responsibility,” Hirsch said. “All the school systems are getting take-home material for parents and students to look at.”
The emphasis is on reducing the risk of being bitten by a potentially infected mosquito, Hirsch said.
Officials are stressing several prevention steps, including:
■ Limit outdoor activities between dawn and dusk.
■ Dress in long-sleeve shirts and pants.
■ Use insect repellent that is at least 35 percent DEET.
■ Drain any standing water on your property, including bird feeders, buckets, pools, and clogged catch basins.
While the state Public Health Department recommends canceling outdoor activities between sundown and sunrise in high-risk areas to reduce the threat of being bitten by a mosquito, the decision is left to the towns, Roach said.
Edward Wirtanen, public health administrator for Hopkinton, said the evening bans on outdoor activities will continue at least until midOctober, when the first killing frost typically arrives.
In Northborough, the Central Massachusetts Mosquito Control Project sprayed the area around the high school to cut down the mosquito population at the end of last month, but games and practices are being moved as a precaution.
Whitten said he is rescheduling games and practices a week at a time, but that involves a vast logistical shuffle affecting not just the athletes and coaches, but also the marching band, boosters, game officials, and police details.
“Times like this show the strength of the community,” Whitten said. “People really do rally and come together.”
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