State Plan for West Nile Virus Response Prepared - Public Comment is Solicited on Draft Plan

Albany, Feb. 18 – Starting today, members of the public will be able to review and comment on a draft plan to address the potential return of West Nile virus to New York State. The comprehensive plan was prepared over the past several months in a collaborative effort among representatives of the State Departments of Health, Environmental Conservation and Agriculture and Markets, New York City Health Department, county health departments and members of environmental organizations.

The draft plan will be posted on the State Health Department's web site (www.health.state.ny.us) for public comment until March 1. Once comments are reviewed and any necessary changes made, the State plan will be adopted and put into operation by April 1.

"We have no way of knowing whether we will see a return of West Nile virus to our State come Spring. In spite of that, we have an obligation to be prepared with a comprehensive response that recognizes the concerns of all our citizens and, in turn, addresses the health care needs of New York State residents," State Health Commissioner Antonia C. Novello, M.D., M.P.H. said. "Because a resurgence of West Nile virus will affect so many people, in multiple counties and governmental jurisdictions, and will have implications both for public health and the environment, I have insisted on this collaborative, cooperative approach to formulate the State response plan. We need, and will be prepared for whatever happens. The plan that has been put forward is solid and achievable."

West Nile virus is the arthropod–borne infection that was responsible for 61 cases of encephalitis in New York City and surrounding counties this past summer and fall and seven deaths, including a Canadian citizen who contracted the disease on a visit to New York City. Prior to the New York State outbreak, the virus had never before been identified in the Western Hemisphere. In addition to the human cases, West Nile infection was confirmed in hundreds of birds, mainly crows, as well as several horses and other domestic animals before low temperatures and aggressive control efforts brought an end to mosquito activity in November.

More than 100 members of the six work groups that are putting together the West Nile virus plan met earlier this month in New York City to present their proposals. Work group members are addressing the following issues: Prevention, Response and Control; Mosquito Surveillance; Bird/Mammal Surveillance; Human Surveillance; Health Information Infrastructure; and Public Communication.

In addition to State and local officials, representatives of Cornell University; Fordham University; the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, National Audubon Society of New York State; and New York City Audubon Society have been working on the draft plan. Dozens of other environmental advocates attended the recent New York City briefing and offered comments and suggestions following the work group presentations.

Among the objectives of the State plan is to promote preventive measures to reduce the breeding sites for mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus, particularly Culex pipiens (the common house mosquito) that is considered the primary vector for the disease in humans. Preliminary testing of over–wintering Culex mosquitoes collected from sewage treatment plants in New York City did not show the presence of viral isolates. Entomologists also attempted to collect mosquito specimens from limited numbers of storm sewers and catch basins in the city, but only a few living adult mosquitoes were found in one of those locations.

  • Officials caution, however, that even though preliminary tests have not demonstrated the presence of virus in the mosquito pools tested, these pools represent a minuscule percentage of the total number of over–wintering mosquitoes and there is no assurance that the cycle of infection will not start again when warm weather returns. For that reason, the State plan promotes programs of Integrated Pest Management.
  • The State plan also creates enhanced surveillance systems for rapid identification of infected mosquitoes, birds and mammals and of potential human cases. Improved electronic information systems will allow State and local officials to more easily share and compare data about mosquito isolates, illness in birds and mammals and suspect human cases of encephalitis caused by the West Nile virus, in order to accurately track the scope of another outbreak. An extensive public awareness campaign will be conducted to inform people of measures they can take to reduce or eliminate Culex breeding sites on their properties, and ways to protect themselves from mosquito–borne disease, should West Nile virus recur.

State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner John P. Cahill said, "The State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is looking forward to continuing to work cooperatively with State and local agencies to minimize mosquito breeding grounds, help educate the public and ensure that any pesticides used in the battle against the West Nile virus are properly applied by certified personnel."

State Department of Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Nathan L. Rudgers said, "Last fall, West Nile virus had a devastating effect on horses on Long Island and we're determined to ensure that every precaution is taken this year to protect our valuable equine industry. Our team of State veterinarians will be closely monitoring the horse population and will continue to advise local practitioners on how to spot symptoms of the virus. Most importantly, we'll continue to alert horse owners to protect their animals."

New York City Health Commissioner Neal L. Cohen, M.D., said, "The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hyigene is pleased to be working collaboratively with the CDC, State Health Department, and surrounding counties, as well as with other New York City agencies, to protect the City from a possible recurrence of West Nile Virus. With both a City plan, and with our active participation in the State–wide plan, we are well prepared to detect the presence of the virus within New York City and to rapidly institute control and public education efforts necessary to safeguard public health."

Dutchess County Health Commissioner Michael Caldwell, M.D., said, "Dutchess County will continue to work proactively with the New York State Health Department on preparing for this year's mosquito season. Locally, we will be creating a strong surveillance infrastructure which will focus on scientific data gathering and community involvement emphasizing prevention and education."

Nassau County Executive Thomas S. Gulotta said, "The West Nile virus does not recognize geographic boundaries. The only successful resolution must be regional in cooperation with other levels of government. Nassau County is prepared to take whatever steps are necessary to safeguard our residents."

Orange County Public Health Director Maxcy J. Smith, M.D., said, "Orange County was fortunate in 1999 in not having West Nile virus in our resident birds, mosquitoes or people. We are alert to the possibility of the virus resurfacing in the year 2000 and are making preparations to monitor the mosquito population and the distribution of dead birds within our County."

Putnam County Public Health Director Bruce Foley said, "The Putnam County Health Department plans to implement the New York State West Nile Virus Response Plan. The response plan was a collaborative effort between local health departments and other agencies and appears to be comprehensive in nature. We look forward to working with the State as well as our neighboring counties in the months ahead."

Rockland County Director of Public Health Education Sandra King said, "The Rockland County Health Department looks forward to implementing the New York State West Nile Virus Response Plan. Our Department feels the response plan is an example of successful collaboration between various agencies and is something we can be proud of."

Suffolk County Health Commissioner Clare B. Bradley, M.D., M.P.H., said, "In 1999, we had no reported human cases of West Nile virus. Suffolk County's extensive mosquito surveillance activities alerted us to the presence of virus in birds and mosquitoes and gave us the opportunity to take appropriate action. The comprehensive, year round water management program conducted by the county helps us prevent heavy mosquito infestations and the spread of mosquito–borne disease."

Ulster County Public Health Director Dean Palen said, "I very much appreciate the efforts of the staff of the New York State Department of Health in developing a regional protocol for West Nile virus response in the year 2000."

Westchester County Executive Andrew J. Spano said, "Westchester County continues to work with the State Health Department and other counties in the region in a generalized approach for the detection and prevention of West Nile virus. We have already embarked on a specific plan, 'Operation Mosquito S.T.I.N.G.,' taking into account our particular situation and location in the watershed and our philosophy of Integrated Pest Management."

Sarah Meyland, Executive Director for Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said, "The use of pesticides has certain inherent risks to human health and the environment, including the use of products and insect repellents containing DEET. The Health Department's plan needs to reflect the public's justified concerns over the potential reliance on pesticides as a solution to the West Nile virus problem. In addition, we should avoid raising unnecessary fears about the risk of contracting the disease from mosquito bites since the great majority of mosquitos do not carry this virus."

William Cooke, State Director of Government Relations for the National Audubon Society, said, "The National Audubon Society is committed to making sure the best plan is developed that protects our environment and public health."

Although spraying to eliminate adult mosquitoes has not been ruled out–spraying decisions will be made by individual counties, according to their specific needs–plan addresses such measures as a last resort. The plan promotes numerous non–pesticide methods of mosquito control, including residential/commercial and municipal control of mosquito larvae to remove or prevent standing water where mosquitoes breed. Use of larvicides to control mosquitoes in the aquatic stage before they become biting adults also is proposed, since this type of control measure generally has the least effect on non–target species and the environment.

When warm weather arrives, State officials expect to encourage New Yorkers to continue to enjoy their usual outdoor activities. Should the virus be identified in a particular area, individuals also will be advised on personal mosquito–protection measures such as installing or repairing screens, avoiding likely mosquito habitats at times of day when the insects are feeding, facts to consider before using an insect repellent containing DEET, ways to minimize exposure should spraying become necessary, and choosing clothing that provides maximum protection against biting insects.

2/18/00–17 OPA