Hamilton County Public Health’s Jeremy Hessel: “We’re all in this together”

The first thing you notice about the Hamilton County Public Health bed bug brochure is the simple direction to call for help (PDF):

If you rent a home or apartment within Hamilton County (excluding cities of Cincinnati, Norwood, Sharonville or Springdale) and you think you have bed bugs, please contact the Hamilton County General Health District at (513) 946-7832. Health District sanitarians will work with your landlord to eliminate the problem.

The four excepted cities operate their own health departments. To see if a city or community is served by Hamilton County Public Health, check this map.

Hamilton County is the other half of the Cincinnati/Hamilton County Joint Bed Bug Task Force. Unforgivably, we have virtually ignored them until now—this despite the fact that a Hamilton County public health official was the first to make us sit up and take notice of a critical perceptual shift in 2007 when he declared that bed bugs were a “public health crisis.”

The Joint Bed Bug Task Force’s recently released Strategic Plan notes several differences between Cincinnati and Hamilton County: 58% rental housing units in Cincinnati vs. 37% in Hamilton County, a higher proportion of old buildings in Cincinnati, 28% of the population living below the poverty line in Cincinnati vs. 15% in Hamilton County, and a greater density of “transient residential structures” in Cincinnati.

A public health nuisance

In the national hand-wringing debate about what to call bed bugs (are they merely nuisance pests or public health pests—and, perhaps, does the answer depend on political will and resources?), Hamilton County shows itself in command of the essential question.

“Bed bugs might not spread disease but we consider them to be vermin, and a public health nuisance,” says registered sanitarian Jeremy Hessel.

When I spoke to Jeremy Hessel, Hamilton County Public Health’s tally of bed bug complaints, at 180, had already surpassed the previous year’s count of 167.

Under Ohio Department of Agriculture pesticide rules, an owner of a building of three units or less is allowed to treat the building without an applicator license. Hessel considers this a significant challenge in Hamilton County. Nonetheless, building owners have started to come round to the idea of hiring competent pest management professionals to service bed bug complaints in their properties, and they’re starting to understand what is required for eradication.

Who pays for treatments in Hamilton County? When tenants were being charged for bed bug treatments, Hessel said, Hamilton County consulted Legal Aid attorneys on their behalf. Unless the landlord could prove that the tenant “brought them in” or that unreasonable destruction was caused by the tenant, the landlord was responsible.

While treatment failure is not yet a significant problem in Hamilton County, Hessel worries about it becoming more common in the future.

Asked about the distribution of bed bug cases in the county, he says that while there is a high concentration in apartment complexes and apartment homes, they’re not only in densely populated areas. “You’ll see them in smaller cities within the county. Suburb areas in the county.”

Frequent tenant turnover in apartments, however, is a perceived factor in the spread.

When I asked about single-family homeowners and the likelihood that their struggles with bed bugs do not come to their attention, Hessel surprised me by saying, “They’ll call us. We’ll try to give as much guidance as possible, and sometimes we even go to their homes.”

When I tell Hessel I’m impressed by this, he says they do it to try to help the public. “Because if they have a problem, and if they stay at a neighbor’s house or at a hotel until the problem’s gone, they can take them with them. So, we’ll try to give them as much advice and guidance as possible and even make a visit sometimes.”

If you see one bug, that’s all you need

What happens when a resident asks for help with a bed bug problem? According to the Joint Bed Bug Task Force Strategic Plan, bed bug complaints received by Hamilton County Public Health are entered into the Cincinnati Area Geographic Information System (CAGIS). A field sanitarian is then assigned to each complaint and conducts an inspection within 5 business days. If an infestation is found, a violation is written and the sanitarian follows-up with all parties (landlord, tenant and pest management professional) within 14 days to check on the progress of the case.

The following flow chart (see page 22 of the Strategic Plan) describes the complaint response process:

Bed Bug Complaint Response Flow Chart

Bed Bug Complaint Response Flow Chart

Hessel explains that they have received guidance on inspection protocols. “Through this process of formulating guidelines, we learned from [Ohio State University entomologist] Susan Jones that ‘if you see one bug, that’s all you need.’”

The Strategic Plan recommends leaving the full, likely-two-hour inspections to the professionals.

If signs of bed bugs are found at the field evaluation, instructions are given to the owner and to the tenants about their responsibilities. Hessel says he asks the landlord to hire a pest control operator “tomorrow or the next day.”

“We follow up with the landlord to make sure that process has been done or that process has been initiated, and then we’ll have the tenants follow up with us on how the situation is going. We might do some follow-up field visits, upon request.”

I ask our favorite question, what about inspections of adjoining apartments?

“We usually recommend that they do that. It’s not mandatory, but it’s highly recommended because of the nature of the bed bugs, and how they maneuver through the walls and electric piping. So most of the applicators that we have encountered do that already. They go in and inspect upstairs, sides and below. It’s all about good pest management.”

What is on the horizon for their bed bug control efforts in Hamilton County? Hessel says they haven’t really looked at furniture movers and furniture stores and they may evaluate the problems in those businesses. He says they plan to do community outreach presentations to different groups, such as social workers and other workers who take care of adults with disabilities.

“One of the tougher issues is when nurses call from school.” They offer help to the affected families.

We’re all in this together

There is a fundamental decency to the approach to bed bug infestations in Hamilton County. And this was felt in our conversations with Jeremy Hessel. When we thanked him for talking to us, he said “We’re all in this together.” When we complimented the extraordinary work that they are doing, he said something I personally found moving in its simple statement of the facts.

He said, “We’re trying. We’re doing the best we can. I hope others will take the lead. If you try to forget about it, if you try to brush it aside, it’s going to catch up with you eventually and you’re going to be behind the eight ball at that point. You got to do something about it now. You can’t let it continue. You have to try to step in and do something for the residents.”

Yes, we must.

New York vs Bed Bugs advocates a comprehensive bed bug strategy for our own city. We’ll have what Cincinnati and Hamilton County are having, please! You can support our efforts.


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  3. JOHN D

    Dont let Mr. Jeremy Hessel fool you.Have called and made complaints since 12-01-08 to no AVAIL with the hamilton county board of health Mr. Hessel’s employer.They DO NOT come out and do a EXTENSIVE search no where in their process.I had a Luke Jacobs 513-946-7831 come to my apartment 2 months ago with a female trainee,who should her the infestation spot that is right in the living room and she grabed his back and covered her snicker as he smiled and acted macho in front of her.Very embarrising.When its I who am a victim here.I was not told the apartment was infested with bed bugs when I moved in or I would have ran like hell.And so would the others who have moved in here since I have.The board of health here in Cincinnati,Ohio puts up a good front but are FULL OF $__T!!!!!!Call and act like any citizen and I bet you wont get the good ole team spirit approach Mr. Hessel put on to you.You will be told “All we can do is make them spray” Exact words heard for the 10th time this morning.Dont let this city fool you it all sounds good but at the end of the day its the lower class who sit and suffer while the Mr.Hessel’s of Hamilton County line their pockets with our little bit of cash we spend trying to get rid of these MAN EATERS!!!! The company that came to my place has been here 3 times since 09-01-09 to do what they call a treatment “DELHI PEST CONTROL INC. BEING THE COMPANY” are here for 10 minutes spraying roach spray on your baseboards and then making a hasty retreat after the precious ten minutes has elapsed.And this is REAL truth for those who want to be informed as I do.JOHN D. Cincinnati,Ohio

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