west nile worker

A SMALL ARMY AGAINST ‘WEST NILE’: Pest Control Aides like this worker play a pivotal role in the city’s war against mosquitoes, which have been found this season to be carrying the West Nile virus that can occasionally be deadly. Their union leader pointed out that there are only 41 workers in the job titles responsible for this task—roughly half as many as were employed early in the decade—with low salaries making retention a problem.

The city Health Department recently detected mosquitoes that are carrying the West Nile virus, adding that there have been no cases reported of anyone contracting the disease.

The virus can be fatal, with 38 deaths documented out of the 259 cases that the city has tracked over the last 20 years.


Most Cases ‘Mild’

“West Nile virus infection can cause a mild or moderate febrile illness; and most (80%) of those infected have no symptoms at all,” according to the DOH advisory. “In some people, particularly those 50 and older or who have weakened immune systems, West Nile virus can cause a serious and potentially fatal infection of the brain and spinal cord.”

The advisory continued, “The most common symptoms are headache, fever, muscle aches, and extreme fatigue. Symptoms of more severe illness can also include changes in mental status and muscle weakness requiring hospitalization. If a person has symptoms of West Nile virus, they should contact or see your doctor.”

The advisory has considerable significance for the thousands of city employees who work primarily out-of-doors, according to Fitz Reid, president of District Council 37’s Local 768, which represents several thousand workers in public-health titles including Pest Control Aide and Exterminator.

“The city may not want to create a panic, so they are playing it down and I understand that,” he said in a phone interview. “But they need to do the field-tracking and use the city workforce as ambassadors to engage the public on what they can do to protect themselves and their families.”

Staff Down Nearly 50%

Mr. Reid said that he felt staffing levels should be increased. “We are down to 26 Pest Control Aides and just 15 Exterminators citywide and we had close to 80 workers if you combine both titles under Mayor Bloomberg,” he said. He also suggested the city waive the fees it charges to clean up lots as part of its insect and pest-control program.

One problem in keeping staff is that Pest Control Aides are paid just $15 an hour to clean up what the union website called “the worst trash in the city,” including “the remains of animals [and] human feces.”

Joseph Puleo, president of DC 37’s Local 983, said in a phone interview that 90 percent of his 3,200 members work outside in the city’s park system or repairing highways.

The local represents Park Rangers, Urban Park Rangers, city seasonal workers, park workers who do maintenance and construction work and 650 highway repair workers who work for the Department of Transportation.

“I’m hearing about this for the first time from you guys, and that’s problematic,” Mr. Puleo said. “The city needs to be more pro-active, and all of the agencies need to brief their workers on how best to protect themselves and what to look out for.”

EMS Union’s Concerns

“This is not only a public-health issue, but also an increased health concern for first-responders, as they are exposed to more outdoor activities than the average resident population,” said Oren Barzilay, president of DC 37’s Local 2507, which represents Emergency Medical Technicians and paramedics. “The city needs to provide more solutions on how to protect its workforce, particularly those working outdoors and specifically for those working in areas” where the West Nile virus has been identified.

“The Health Department has developed a comprehensive reference document for city employees titled: Procedures to Prevent the Transmission of Vector-Borne Diseases to City Employees and the Occupational Exposure to Pesticides & Related Chemicals Used to Control Such Diseases,' " the DOH wrote in response to a query from this newspaper. “The contents offers guidance on how to prevent and/or minimize exposure to vector-borne diseases such as West Nile virus (WNV), prevent and/or minimize pesticides exposure (including larvicides and adulticides) used to control mosquitoes and how to properly use mosquito-repellants.”

The city has over 61 surveillance sites and will spray pesticides to target mosquitoes if persistent West Nile virus activity is detected.

Precautions to Take

The DOH recommends that workers and the public use an approved insect-repellent containing picaridin, DEET, oil of lemon eucalyptus (not for children under three), or products that contain the active ingredient IR3535.

Windows and screens should be checked for holes or tears. Homeowners should eliminate any standing water around their property, and roof gutters should be clean and able to drain properly.

Swimming pools, outdoor saunas and hot tubs should be chlorinated, and when not in active use, drained or covered. Pool covers that collect water are another breeding ground that needs attention.

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