Even while staying six feet apart, people venturing outside during quarantine are being exposed to other diseases: those carried by ticks. Ticks don’t obey any stay-at-home orders, and as the warm weather brings out more pests, cases of tick-borne diseases are rising.
The 2020 tick season has already seen a steep increase in insect activity. A crowdsourced survey by the University of Rhode Island, TickSpotters, reported record numbers of tick sightings in March 2020, 80% more than in 2019. The increase in sightings may be a result of many people spending their free time outside during the COVID-19 pandemic, possibly combined with increased tick populations.
TickSpotters reported less drastic numbers in April and May, and there’s no way to predict the fluctuation of tick activity in the coming months. However, ticks don’t need increased populations to remain a public health concern.
Ticks are often vectors of human disease, most commonly Lyme disease, a bacterial infection rampant in Europe and the United States. Over the past few decades, the regions affected by Lyme disease have been expanding. Ticks have begun bringing the disease to the Midwest, Northeast, and mid-Atlantic regions of the US, facilitated by factors like climate change, deforestation, and urbanization.
The CDC receives about 30,000 reports of diagnosed Lyme disease per year, but the agency estimates that this number is only a tenth of the actual US cases. Along with Lyme disease, other tick-borne diseases like ehrlichiosis, spotted fever rickettsiosis, babesiosis, tularemia, and Powassan virus can be deadly if left untreated.
To protect yourself from infection, the CDC recommends staying out of tall grass, using EPA-registered insect repellents, checking your body and clothes for ticks, and showering immediately after going outside. Ticks are more visible on light-colored clothing, and tucking pants into socks can prevent ticks from hiding under clothes. If you do find a tick on your body, remove it with tweezers as quickly as possible and monitor your skin for signs of infection. A common first sign of Lyme disease is a bulls-eye rash around the tick bite.