Tuesday, October 26, 2010

NYC's DOH Bugging Out

We have been commenting on the fact that the NYC DOH has seemed to have lost its proper train of thought-going off on a tangent from its core public health mission into regulatory excess and behavior modification experiments. Now comes more proof-and from the Washington Post, no less.

According to WaPo, NYC is losing millions of tourist dollars because of the bed bug epidemic: "New York City's bedbugs have climbed out of bed and marched into landmarks like the Empire State Building, Bloomingdale's and Lincoln Center, causing fresh anxiety among tourists who are canceling Big Apple vacations planned for the height of the holiday season. Some travelers who had arranged trips to New York say they are creeped out about staying in hotels and visiting attractions as new reports of bedbugs seem to pop up every few days. And officials in Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration are concerned about the effect on the city's image and $30 billion tourism industry."

But hey, banning the use of food stamps for the purchase of soda is more important, right? Or, perhaps, the Scarlet Letter regulation regime for the city's restaurants is more pressing an issue-after all, we've had all of those outbreaks of ptomaine poisoning that we've had to respond to, haven't we?

But back to the core mission, and the agency's abdication: "But those reports, along with bedbug discoveries in movie theaters, hotels and clothing chain stores, are causing skittish travelers to call off trips planned months ago. Industry professionals - who have privately told city officials that they are nervous about bedbugs hurting New York's reputation - say publicly that they are not aware of any bedbug-related cancellations. But several would-be tourists tracked down by The Associated Press say they are aborting their trips here because they fear the bloodsucking pests. "It sounds like you can get them anywhere, any time of day and not know it until you get home," said Patty Majerik, from Baltimore."

Has the mayor or the commissioner had one press conference on this? Well, perhaps, but somehow we don't sense the same kind of urgency that the mayor expresses towards, let's say, smoking in bars-or the parks for that matter. Meanwhile, the disgust of tourists grows  apace: "Suzanne Baldwin said she is forfeiting money spent on reservations for a November trip to New York City from her home in Florida. She had already grown accustomed to checking hotel rooms for bedbugs - and has done so in New York before - but she is now overwhelmed at the idea that the bugs have spread beyond hotels. "We thought long and hard about this trip," she told the AP in an e-mail. "However, we decided, knowing we would lose quite a bit of money from nonrefundable tickets, it was not worth the worry."

But it's good to know that the mayor hasn't lost his sense of humor-or, perhaps has discovered it at this late date: "Bedbugs are famously difficult to eradicate; they hide in many more places than beds and can go a year without feeding. Bloomberg recently joked on David Letterman's "Late Show" that bedbugs "are probably tougher" than New York City's notoriously hardy rats." Quite a knee slapper, no?

But maybe we need a Dr. Stockman to emerge to challenge the mayor's jocularity-humor that is meant to deflect from the fact that the city's spa is being polluted. You do get the feeling that the deflection and lack of public attention is designed to forestall the following: "The city's tourism agency, NYC & Company, said it has not seen mass cancellations because of bedbug fears. But officials said some New York hotels, museums and other attractions that depend on tourists have told the administration they are concerned the bedbug rumors will scare travelers away. Tourism officials are keeping an eye on the situation and are trying to decide how to address the public relations side of it."

Crain's weighs in as well on this: "City officials and experts say it is difficult to fully measure the extent of the problem, partly because of bedbug stigma and the lack of solid data about confirmed infestations. For the first time, the city health department included a question about bedbugs on its annual community health survey. In 2009, it found, more than 6% of New Yorkers—one in 15 adults—said they had battled the pests in the past year. Until the AP reported those results earlier this year, data had been limited to government statistics on bedbug complaints and private pest control company surveys."

Looks as if the ball has definitely been dropped-and someone should also check movie attendance to see if our family's refusal to go because of the bed bug infestation is simply an anomaly-the failures here could be having far reaching and undocumented consequences. A full scale investigation and a public announcement of the proposed remedies needs to be done ASAP.

This is a serious public health issue, but the public health professionals have been sidetracked by more enticing endeavors involving altering the way we eat and live. For our money-and it is our money-the entire DOH bureaucracy can be dismantled down to a core of true public health specialists who are equipped to deal with rodent and insect infestations in the city.