With consistently warmer weather on the way, and already here on some days, and people out and about enjoying that weather, one particular pest has the potential to cause havoc: ticks.
Health professionals said this week that symptoms of some tick-borne diseases can mimic those of Covid-19, and an already stressed health care system may not be able to handle an influx of new patients who have been bitten by ticks and get sick.
“It confuses the picture of trying to assess and see if someone is positive for Lyme disease,” said Rebecca Young, a nurse who is the patient navigator for the Stony Brook Southampton Hospital Regional Tick-Borne Disease Research Center. “That’s what a lot of the conversations are about. Because we had a warm winter, I’m sure it will be a high season for ticks, especially since there are so many more people out here for this time of year.”
Common sights right now are throngs of people outdoors taking advantage of the early spring warmth, enjoying the beaches, walking in the street, or going on nature hikes. On Sunday afternoon there were so many cars lined up at the Route 114 entrance to the trails in Northwest Woods that they spilled out onto the shoulder of the road.
While Covid-19 has delayed the opening of the hospital’s tick clinic in Hampton Bays, the hospital’s hotline for tick issues is still operational. It is 631-726-8425 (631-726-TICK).
Fever, chills, weakness, headaches and body aches, and even respiratory symptoms can occur with the bite of an infected tick. (Not all ticks carry an infection.) Illnesses like Lyme disease, babesiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, anaplasmosis, Powassan, and others — though not all are present in this region — have symptoms that can overlap with those of Covid-19.
And with current restrictions on who should and should not show up at doctors’ offices and emergency rooms, treatment may be hard to obtain.
“We’re pinned between a rock and a hard place,” said Dr. George Dempsey, whose East Hampton Family Medicine practice has become expert at handling ticks. “Tick disease we know how to treat, but they may end up going to the E.R. and getting exposed to the Covid-19 virus.”
For now, he said, those bitten by a tick should save the tick in a plastic bag and contact their health care providers. “We’ll figure something out,” he said.
For Lyme disease, a telltale symptom is the appearance of a bull?s-eye rash. “What we also say about Lyme is if you get flu symptoms in the summer, it’s most likely Lyme because we don’t usually see the flu in the summer,” Ms. Young said. “Now we don’t know how much into the summer Covid-19 will go. We have to keep that in mind and let the callers know they share the symptoms with the virus. But you don’t get a bull?s-eye rash with Covid-19.”
Both Dr. Dempsey and Ms. Young reported higher-than-usual inquiries about ticks in the last couple of weeks, compared to the same time period in previous years. But Ms. Young said ticks are active all year.
“Typically, this time of year, it is just beginning to ramp up,” she said Tuesday. “The bulk of the calls come in toward the end of this month and the beginning of May. There were quite a few calls yesterday. Hard to judge exactly where we’re at, but we have a few issues.”
Dr. Dempsey said the same precautions that normally apply to ticks should be taken: Wear long pants and tall socks, and tuck pant legs into the socks; wear light-colored clothing and shoes; do regular tick checks; and use permethrin, a tick killer than is nontoxic when sprayed on clothing and shoes (though permethrin is harmful to cats when it is first sprayed into the air).