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Acclimating in a COVID Climate

Dr. Waheed Bajwa answers the phone in his lab coat. He’s been looking at samples under the microscope, thinking about things most people will never see.

Managing operations in the face of a global pandemic may not be business as usual for Bajwa, Executive Director, Vector Surveillance and Control and the rest of his team with the New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene. But in the face of adversity, the pandemic created an opportunity for the whole team, and others like them, to exceed expectations.

Adjustments in New York have been contemplated, devised, developed and communicated. Bajwa says that in a sense, the crisis simply “sets in motion the things you’ve been trained to do. Obviously it is a challenging time, but the pandemic provided us opportunity to think ahead and plan well for similar situations/emergencies arising in the future.”

Unlike privately funded districts built on tax levies, mosquito control operations and funding for Bajwa’s program come from the same health department budget with which the battle against the pandemic is being raged. While the state is diverting resources to manage this crisis, readiness for such an event is part of Bajwa’s job.

When asked about the adjustments made in his department, Bajwa is charmingly scientific.

“Well, the first thing we do is to identify places where we can cut back a little without compromising our program,” Bajwa says. “We felt like we could cut back our sampling. We had 61 trapping sites and we cut that back to 53, for example. “This saved us almost 15%, which is not a whole lot,” Bajwa says, “but it’s what we can do.”

Cutting back on sample collections makes sense for multiple reasons, some of Bajwa’s personnel has been diverted as well. And the same labs that test mosquitoes are now focused on COVID, making demand on those resources higher. To offset this challenge, Bajwa and his team have also adopted the Rapid Analyte Measurement Platform (RAMP) system, an immunoassay test for West Nile virus (WNV) detection, to target hot spots and lessen the burden on the lab.

Indeed, Bajwa’s team is focused now on preparing for how to prevent West Nile Virus (WNV) transmission if the intensity of pandemic increases over time, particularly through the mosquito season. This includes using social media for dissemination of alerts and other information to the public, and promoting use and distribution of mosquito repellents in the WNV hotspots.

The largely positive outlook from NYC is more common among mosquito abatement districts than you might think. But don’t be hasty, says Bajwa. It’s also because insect pressure has been relatively low. Through July 1, Bajwa says NYC had experienced the coolest temperatures the city has seen since 2009

Not so in the Florida Keys.

Jobs One and Two

The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) still operates with its typical hum of efficiency, but here the pressure is very real. Not only is the pandemic stressing the system, but there have already been 15 cases of dengue and 18 cases of West Nile reported in Florida thus far this year (as of 7/7/20). Director Andrea Leal says the situation is intense but so far under control.

In the summer of 2010, on the heels of the most intense dengue pressure in 75 years, the Keys became the first district in history to begin wide area larviciding applications as part of its Aedes control program. It would be ten years before another locally-acquired case of dengue was reported in Monroe County.

Unlike NYC, FKMCD is an independent special district, funded by local taxpayers. It represents the flip side of the coin – a dedicated mosquito control entity rather than a subdivision of the State Department of Health.

Leal says her team is performing beyond expectations as well. Keeping residents and visitors safe is important – but not the most important thing.

“We exist to protect the public and take that responsibility very seriously,” Leal says. “But the health and well-being of our employees has to be our #1 priority. Without a well-trained staff, we don’t have a program. We have to make sure we provide a work environment where our people are safe, while also modifying our protocols to ensure the safety and well-being of the public during any interactions.”

Site visits are a big part of the tech team’s responsibilities in the Keys, where the local economy is highly dependent upon tourism. Having a safe and hospitable environment is important to the myriad of business and property owners in the Keys. Still, the attractive nature of the surroundings poses additional challenges. As COVID restrictions have led to beach closures to the north in Miami-Dade, that drives even more Floridians – and vacationers – to the Keys.

Leal and her team have put several changes in place to deal with the new dynamics. During the months of March and April, half of Leal’s staff worked at home – reviewing or viewing training materials – while the other half was in the field. Since the beginning of May, all field staff have been back out. The team has new PPE guidelines, carefully defined areas for base operations, and less door-to-door activity than a typical year. Monitoring hotspots has been the team’s main focus. Talking about source reduction at town meetings – an important activity every summer – is simply not possible, so the district is taking full advantage of the strong social media presence it has created over the years.

Budget-wise, Leal says the district is fully funded this year and is trying to avoid any increase for next year.

Pressure Up North had been Low, But No Longer

Stephen Manweiler is the Executive Director of the Metropolitan Mosquito Control District (MMCD) in Minneapolis / St. Paul. MMCD is another independent special district, one that operates on tax dollars from the seven Minnesota counties the district serves. Manweiler says his 20+ years working for MMCD have taught him one thing in times of crisis: don’t micromanage.

“You do your best to prepare for the unknown,” says Manweiler,” but you can’t always anticipate what comes at you. In early March, everything was normal. By mid-March, we were in complete shutdown. It took every bit of experience we had – collectively – to stay on course.”

For Manweiler and his team, that meant putting in place a new communications platform – fast. The district had only one week to deploy a remote access working environment for the whole team. While that was being done, new protocols were being developed to manage the workplace and still more guidelines for field work. Next was a revised approach to all of the training that takes place in advance of the summer season.

Like other districts, MMCD had to make some operations adjustments with a goal of reducing its spend by 15%. Manweiler says that adjustment amounted to cutting support in some of the more remote areas of the district. Similar to FKMCD, the district is also planning to forego any increase in 2021 for what it takes to run the program. But all in all, he’s been amazed at how galvanizing the COVID crisis has proven to be.

Manweiler says the late-June and early-July spike in temperature mean that pressure has ramped up suddenly, and lockstep execution of those adjustments will be necessary to continue delivering services.

COVID Responses in the Twin Cities

The Metropolitan Mosquito Control District in Minneapolis/St. Paul is one of the most advanced mosquito programs in the world. Technical Services Manager Mark Smith shares some of the changes the District put in place in Response to pressure from the pandemic:

Staff reductions: We made the decision to reduce seasonal staff to coincide with our number of field vehicles. Social distancing has compelled us to only have one person per truck. In the past, we have had seasonal inspectors ride together and work as teams. This approximately led us to hire 30 less inspectors in 2020. MMCD normally hires around 210 inspectors per season so each of our foreman-led crews has one less inspector in 2020. Thus far, we have been able to make the difference with no major loss in production.

Split shifts: To reduce the amount of people in the facilities at any one time, we have spaced out the starting times of our foreman-led crews. We have start times at 6:30am, 7:00am and 7:30am.

Isolation of trucks: Once seasonal staff are assigned to a vehicle, they are not allowed to access other vehicles and they must sanitize their vehicle each day. Phones, control materials or equipment is assigned to vehicles and is not used by other personnel.

Isolation of office space: No seasonal inspectors are allowed in the regular full-time (RFT) office area (expect bathroom area). Inspectors are restricted to garage area and each foreman-led crew has a specified area in the garage to meet (social distancing applies). We are trying to reduce interaction between crews and encourage outside meetings of staff when applicable.

Staff training: We increased the use of training videos that inspectors could access via their cell phones and increased the amount of forms (W2, I9s, etc.) that staff could fill out on-line (via ADP software) to reduce the direct interaction with staff. Orientation sessions were done in garage areas where social distancing could be more easily applied.

COVID masks: All staff must wear a mask (N95, bandana, cloth mask) when they are within our facilities or interacting with staff or public.

Entomology lab samples: Created drop boxes and mailboxes in garage areas. These drop areas reduce the amount of face-to-face interactions. Text messages notify staff of items left in drop areas.

Physical barriers: Where staff must work in enclosed areas (i.e. entomology lab), we have placed plexiglass barriers around workstations to reduce risk. We have increased use of other available space to place workers at safer working distances between employees.

Work from home: Increased access to District computer network so staff can easily work from areas outside the office (via Splashtop software). RFT Staff has been encouraged to work from home when applicable to reduce COVID risks.

Socialization: We have reduced the amount of face-to-face interaction between staff in our facilities as much as possible to reduce COVID risks. If it must be done, social distancing is enforced and use of outdoor space is encouraged.

Cleaning/Sanitizing: We have common areas sanitized after use (via cleaning supplies). Each employee is responsible for sanitizing area after use.

Public interaction: Since many more citizens are home due to COVID restrictions, we have increased our awareness that public relations may play a bigger role for our staff. More people are observing our staff in the field so we are attempting to educate the public on our program but limit the time in face-to-face contact. Encourage citizens to use our website for additional information (brochures help direct them there).

Work areas: We increased the number of facility work stations (i.e. control material weighing stations, map books, supplies, etc.) within each facility to reduce employee face-to-face interaction.

Meetings: All interoffice meetings are now held via the internet/computer network. Go-to-Meeting, Zoom and other software is used to conduct District meetings.

Closed offices: All District facilities are closed to public. No public meetings, vendor meetings or the like are held within the District.

Budget: In anticipation of receiving less tax levy monies in 2020 (defaults in property tax payments to local counties in which we receive our funding), we have reduced our 2020 expenditures by 15% across the board. We have chosen to do this reduction to protect our reserves and lessen the chance to inhibit operations in 2021 and beyond.  In our Metropolitan area, the normal property tax defaults are approximately 2-3%. Some of the Metropolitan counties are projecting around a 12% tax default rate in the coming cycle due to the strained economics of COVID pandemic.

Pre-hatch applications: We have reduced the amount of pre-hatch treatments in many areas and will focus on more check & treat applications (i.e. Bti). We may limit the amount of area covered if we have large scale rain events (District-wide broods) and cannot reach all areas within time constraints of mosquito development.

Mixed Messages from the West Coast

In Northern California, San Mateo County Mosquito and Vector Control District (SMCMVCD) Assistant Manager Brian Weber is cautiously optimistic with how things are going. Like the other districts, San Mateo is also targeting a 15% reduction in operations expenditures. Like other districts, they’ve made adjustments with staff and workplace guidelines and are using screen time wisely to review training and catch up on the literature. And like other districts, all of these measures are spelled out and communicated in a very thorough and practical way to ensure that all district employees are on the same page.

When you talk to Brian about funding, it’s a subject he won’t typically spend too much time on. Not because funding is a challenge, but it’s rarely his biggest worry. SMCMVCD is funded in part through property taxes in the San Francisco Bay area, some of the highest-end real estate in the country.

But here again, one of those unforeseen outcomes of the pandemic might impact how the program is funded in the future.

“We operate under a program called the Teeter plan,” says Weber. “Under Teeter, the County collects property taxes and handles all the administration, then distributes funds to each district based not just on the property taxes, but also any delinquency fees and other penalties they anticipate collecting. By Governor’s order, though, delinquency penalties in California have been suspended. It’s one of the ways the State is helping people bear the financial brunt of COVID. No penalties means less money in the forecast.”

Weber says it’s no cause for alarm, it’s just a good example of indirect changes that might be brought about by the pandemic.

“In times of crisis, you have to take a second look at things,” says Weber. “All the districts do. We have to make whatever changes are necessary to stay on track with our objectives and our responsibilities.”

Change has been more rapid in Los Angeles.

Jared Dever and his wife Truc run two mosquito districts in the greater Los Angeles Area – the largest area of mosquito control operations in the country, population wise. Jared is District Manager in San Gabriel County, Truc in Greater LA County. Jared is currently under quarantine as a precautionary measure after one of Truc’s staff members tested positive for COVID.

LA is bursting at the seams with coronavirus, logging almost half of the state’s total COVID cases, which spiked following the June riots. Despite the relatively low viral activity among mosquitoes in 2020, Jared doesn’t have the same sanguine look of control that some of our other Directors had.

“There’s important work you just can’t do in this environment.” Jared laments. He gives the example of out-of-service swimming pools, of which there as many as 3,000 in the San Gabriel Valley any given year. In a typical year, the San Gabriel team uses an elegant system they developed using a pre-season fly over to identify all of the out of commission pools using aerial photography. Later, they contact each of those property owners through a progressive communications process that starts with direct mail notifications and text messages, and ends (hopefully) with the property owner providing proof that the pool is being serviced or is compliant with source reduction guidelines. Jared says the program typically nets as much as 85-90% compliance through those contacts.

Now, inspecting and treating the remaining noncompliant pools has become much more difficult. Normally, entry warrants would be secured to enter those properties, but since the courts are shut down, there is no way to send or enforce violation notices. And there are other challenges.

“Porta-potties was another one.” Jared says. “Typically when a crew is out, they can stop anywhere along the way and use the facilities at a restaurant or local business. Now those places are either closed or severely limiting access to their buildings. That’s something we had to figure out quickly.”

To resolve this dilemma, district staff contacted businesses and municipal facilities strategically located in their work areas to gain permission to use their restroom facilities. The District also put plans in place to rent porta-potties and tow them to central locations in the district each day. As Los Angeles County continues to tighten restrictions on businesses, the district may have to execute that plan.

On the plus side, Dever says air quality in LA is better than he’s ever experienced in his lifetime.

“With everyone working from home, the air quality index in LA is the best it’s been in 40 years,” Dever says. “People were so used to spending an hour or two in the morning and then another hour or two in the evening parked on our freeways, it just became a way of life. Now, COVID forced people to take a step back and look at how they work. It seems like many have found they’re a lot more productive when they have four hours – per day – of their life back that they used to spend in traffic. I’d be surprised if it ever goes back to the way it was, so that’s one silver lining.”