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Senators question state's efforts to fight tick-borne illnesses

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s health commissioner received a grilling from state senators at a hearing this week on whether New York is doing enough to combat tick-borne illnesses.

Health Commissioner Howard Zucker told the senators that this year, there are fewer deer ticks and fewer reported cases of Lyme disease in the state.

But, he said, the number of Lone Star ticks is up. They can carry diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever and even cause someone to become allergic to eating red meat.

The health department also reported that they’ve found cases of the Powassan virus in ticks further upstate, this time in Saratoga County. One person died after being infected. The rare but serious illness can cause encephalitis, the inflammation of the brain.

The senators, mostly Republican and mostly from upstate and Long Island districts, closely questioned Zucker on whether the health department is doing enough in light of the discovery of these new, alarming diseases and conditions.

Sen. Sue Serino of the Hudson Valley, who is chair of the Senate Task Force on Tick-Borne Illnesses, questioned whether the number of illnesses is actually down or if there’s underreporting and misdiagnoses. She said children in her district often don’t know the basics about how to respond to a tick bite.

“I ask the kids in the class, ‘How many children know about ticks and Lyme disease?’ ” Serino said. “And you have about a third of the class raise their hands.”

Serino said just having the information on the health department’s website is not enough. Sen. Betty Little of the North Country wondered why the Cuomo administration is not running ads on television warning people of the dangers.

“TV ads that try to educate people a little bit better, about ticks and what to watch for,” Little said. “Especially, with the Powassan thing, where we had people die.”

Zucker responded that he wants to focus more on social media campaigns instead.

“We are working on that on multiple fronts,” Zucker said.

And he and his aides said the number of tick-related illnesses reported can vary from year to year.

But the senators were not convinced. Sen. Ken LaValle, who represents portions of eastern Long Island, said Lyme disease has reached epidemic proportions in his district. He said more research needs to be funded, and he questioned whether state health officials are doing enough.

“We need to ratchet up what we are doing,” LaValle urged.

“We are attacking it with a lot of enthusiasm,” Zucker responded.

LaValle urged Zucker to “think big” for the upcoming state budget.

Cuomo has adopted a tradition of limiting state spending to about a 2 percent rate of growth per year. That has meant many state agencies, including the health department, have budgets that are essentially frozen.

Reporters asked Zucker whether he felt too constrained by the budget targets to advocate for more money to fight tick-borne illnesses. He said no, but he said he believes the department can work smarter with the money it already has.

“Sometimes, it’s not just an issue of money but how we message things and get communication out there,” he said.

Zucker said health officials plan to do more. This fall, the department will coordinate with the state Department of Environmental Conservation to include more information in hunter education classes about the risks of tick bites. In 2018, they will enact a statewide surveillance and response plan, modeled on the one already in place for mosquito-borne illnesses.

After the hearing, Serino issued a statement, saying that the health department efforts so far have fallen short and that “more is needed from our partners at the state and federal levels” for research, prevention and to develop more effective testing and treatment options.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.