GOSHEN — On top of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Elkhart County is under a new health emergency to curtail the return of Eastern Equine Encephalitis. The move opens the way to spray a portion of the county to kill mosquitoes next week.
County commissioners Mike Yoder and Suzanne Weirick declared a disaster emergency Friday during a hastily arranged meeting with members of the county health department and Emergency Management Agency. They took action after the Indiana State Department of Health notified Elkhart County, as well as LaGrange, Kosciusko, Noble, Marshall and LaPorte counties, about a need to spray for mosquitoes within the next several days.
The plan calls for aerial spraying to begin around dusk — when mosquitoes are more active — on Tuesday in parts of York and Middlebury townships in the northeast corner of the county, Karla Kreczmer, the local health department’s environmental health manager, told the board. Wednesday evening is scheduled as an alternate date if Tuesday’s spraying is postponed by weather.
The decision to spray is driven by cases of EEE spreading among horses, and even at least a couple humans, this month.
“They are seeing more horses in Michigan, and the concern is we’re now seeing horses in Indiana and we have one probable human case in Indiana. So they want to try to knock that mosquito population down before there are any more cases,” Kreczmer said after the meeting.
Data through the state health department’s website shows as of Tuesday the disease has appeared in two horses in LaGrange County and one in Kosciusko County, as well as one person, as a probable case, in LaPorte County.
EEE has also been confirmed in 22 horses across 10 counties in Michigan, and it’s suspected in one person as of Tuesday, the Michigan health and human services department posted online.
Elkhart County has no reported cases so far.
“We do not have any positive cases at this point that I know of in Elkhart County. Now there is sometimes a lag in reporting because of the testing — it takes a week or so to get those test results in, and by the time those get trickled down to us we don’t always hear about them right away,” Kreczmer said.
EEE, a disease from a virus carried by mosquitoes, is considered rare in people but lethal. Kreczmer said the death rate among humans is about 33%, while for horses it’s about 90%.
The county’s emergency declaration states EEE is, “a serious and deadly disease,” as an issue justifying the action.
The commissioners, along with the declaration, authorized Wakarusa-based aviation company, AgriFlite Services Inc., to conduct the mosquito spraying next week. Kreczmer said she believes pilots will use the insecticide Dibrom. Commissioner Suzanne Weirick also pointed out next week is an optimal time for aerial spraying as forecasts call for clear skies and mild autumn temperatures.
AgriFlite performed aerial mosquito sprays in Elkhart County during a similar emergency declaration amid an EEE outbreak in 2019.
An Elkhart County resident died from the disease as Indiana’s sole case of it last year — the state’s first since 1998. Indiana also had 14 cases of EEE among horses last year, with 11 in Elkhart County and three in LaGrange County, U.S. Agriculture Department statistics show.
The disease hit Michigan harder. Federal data from the Centers for Disease Control and the USDA show the state had 17 human cases and 29 horse cases. However, data put out by the state’s health department in April shows there were 10 human cases and 50 animal cases across multiple counties.
The new local emergency declaration is limited to responding to EEE and does not include travel restrictions. It does include reminders for residents to take standard mosquito-prevention steps, including:
• Avoiding mosquito-breeding areas;
• Staying indoors during hours when mosquitoes are active;
• Using bug sprays and repellents;
• Wearing long-sleeve shirts and pants when in areas where mosquitoes are active;
• Emptying containers of standing waters, unclogging gutters, mowing overgrown vegetation, and maintaining screened doors and windows.
Weirick noted that while spray area for next Tuesday covers a small portion of the county, residents throughout the county should take precautions in case the virus spreads.
Next week’s spraying is considered a state operation. Steve Olsen, a county attorney, said the state department of health has the contract with AgriFlite and is covering the costs. The emergency declaration is set to expire next Friday unless the commissioners extend it.
Commissioner Yoder also said residents wanting to expand the spray area or with further questions about the situation should contact the state health department.
Commissioner Frank Lucchese was not at the meeting.