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Bill Seeks to Override Local Authority To Fight Mosquito-Borne EEE Virus

There Were 12 Human Cases Of EEE in Massachusetts Last Year & 6 People Died From The Virus
Last summer Massachusetts saw a resurgence of Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE), with more than two hundred communities designated as moderate to critical risk by the Department of Public Health (DPH). The virus, spread through the bite of an infected mosquito, can impact - and, rarely, kill - humans of any age as well as animals.
     Public health officials reported 12 human cases of EEE in Massachusetts last year, and six people died from the virus.
The Massachusetts State Senate recently passed legislation designed to control Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE), a mosquito-borne arbovirus that is rare but can be fatal.
     Massachusetts typically experiences outbreaks every 10- 20 years, and the outbreak can last for two to three years. It appears that the state is about to enter the second season of a three-year EEE cycle.
     The bill is based on legislation Gov. Charlie Baker filed in April that would give the State Reclamation and Mosquito Control Board new powers to fight mosquito-borne illnesses when the Department of Public Health determines there is an elevated risk.
     In his filing letter, Baker wrote that the “current framework for mosquito control dates to the 1970s and does not allow for the sort of coordinated statewide efforts that are necessary to prevent and combat these viruses and the mosquitoes that carry them."
     "Many cities and towns have not joined a mosquito control project," Baker wrote. "In these parts of the Commonwealth, there is no entity - state, regional or local - that can engage in mosquito control. While a town-by-town approach does allow for maximum local input into mosquito control, unfortunately mosquitos and viruses do not respect borders."
     Baker said he filed the bill after the state last year "experienced unprecedented levels of EEE prevalence, illness, and deaths."
     Currently aerial spraying is limited to municipalities that join a mosquito control project, limiting the state's ability to address the arbovirus systematically, resulting in an ineffective patchwork approach to airborne insects that do not respect town boundaries.
     This bill would expand state authority to act in a coordinated statewide approach while providing stakeholders with ample notice prior to spraying.
     This bill allows the State Reclamation and Mosquito Control Board (SRMCB) to engage in mosquito control activities across the state where the commissioner of public health determines that elevated risk of arbovirus exists, including areas where there has been no existing legislative authority.
     Last year's EEE activity indicated a geographic expansion beyond the typical clusters in Bristol County in the most southern section of the state. Last year was the first in a new cycle as it spread to the Metrowest, Central Mass, and all the way west of Worcester. Experts predict this expansion will continue with climate change.
     With reports of another active season, and with chances of EEE continuing to spread to other areas of the state, legislators felt it was imperative to act now. “With the mosquito season already underway, we must act quickly to protect our residents from the potentially deadly effects of EEE,” stated Senate President Karen E. Spilka (D-Ashland).
     The bill lets cities and towns opt out of spraying if they have an alternative mosquito management plan approved by the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. This bill also establishes a task force to study the state's mosquito control process and recommend comprehensive reforms. Given the anticipated cyclical nature of these diseases, this bill would sunset Dec. 31, 2022.
     Last winter, being warmer than normal, this summer is predicted be a very bad year for EEE. Senate President Spilka said the bill "lays out a comprehensive strategy to combat mosquitoes spreading EEE" and will make sure the Department of Public Health is able to work with local communities.
     The bill establishes a comprehensive and coordinated approach to tackling EEE that will reach all corners of the Commonwealth. The bill authorizes the State Reclamation and Mosquito Control Board (SRMCB) to take actions to reduce the mosquito population if the Department of Public Health determines there may be an elevated risk of EEE.
     The Mosquito Control Board would be authorized to conduct aerial pesticide spraying, subject to notifying the public and putting in place procedural safeguards. Control actions include public education, surveillance of the mosquito population, and elimination of standing water and application of larvicides that safely prevent mosquitoes from becoming adults.
     Certain landowners, such as owners of organic farms, may apply to opt-out of spraying, and a municipality may opt-out of spraying if the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs approves an alternative mosquito management plan provided by the municipality. The bill also creates a Mosquito Control Task Force to recommend reforms to modernize and improve the state’s mosquito control system.
     The push to update mosquito control practices comes as the Department of Public Health is embroiled in efforts to stem the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic in Massachusetts.
     The Senate passed the bill, sending it to the House for potential action.
     Introducing the bill to his colleagues, Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues described it as time-sensitive and said it would address the current "ineffective patchwork approach to airborne insects."
     Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr (R -Gloucester) said, "We all saw what happened last year with the rapid expansion of Eastern Equine Encephalitis, and the consequences of it. That is why this bill strikes a careful balance between the state government's responsibility to respond to an emergent public health situation while properly protecting the environment,
including a recognition of the plight of pollinators, as well as the interests of property owners and municipalities so that the spraying is correctly tailored to the threat.”
     The bill now moves to the Massachusetts House of Representative.
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