So, what will NYC do about bed bugs?

I was as surprised as you to learn that the city intended to release the advisory board report after all and adopt some of its recommendations. It’s tempting to think that interesting things happen when CEOs start writing to the Mayor asking for guidance.

But there were certainly people applying pressure from all sides. I am ever mindful of Council Member Gale Brewer’s sustained leadership on this issue over many years.

Let’s set aside for a moment the recommendations of the bed bug advisory board (PDF).

What do they actually plan to do? $500K is a substantial commitment (though some do not see it that way) — how are they going to spend it?

This is the press release.

And these are the relevant passages:

Based on the Board’s recommendations, the City will develop a web-based bed bug portal for public education and awareness; work to coordinate and improve bed bug abatement enforcement practices in housing and ensure up to date and effective training of pest management professionals.

and

The Bed Bug Portal will serve as a cost-effective outreach tool for any New Yorker affected by bed bugs. It will provide step-by-step instructions on how to prevent, confirm and manage an infestation, and offer information and training videos for landlords and pest management professionals. The Departments of Health and Mental Hygiene and Housing Preservation will also create joint enforcement teams to work with property owners to conduct affirmative inspections of neighboring apartments in multi-unit dwellings to help prevent and to stop the spread of bed bugs once they have been found. City agencies will also provide more extensive training for their inspectional, pest control and social service workforces to help keep up with the developing science of bed bug control, and to help tenants understand what they can do to prevent and respond to infestations.

The most promising aspects of this plan are the “affirmative inspections of neighboring apartments” — based on what the Health Department at the press conference called “enhanced expectations” of landlords and property managers (and, in referring to expecting tenants to open their doors, of tenants as well) — and the “training of the city’s inspectional, pest control and social service workforces.”

This is a lot. It’s more than I expected.

Systematically inspecting the apartments adjoining an infested apartment, on all sides, is in my view the single most effective step that can be taken. It is a lot easier said than done. There are no details available at this time (I’ve asked) about how exactly they intend to do this. If they manage to dispel the fear and short-term concerns that prevent property managers from acting rationally (according to reasonable self-interest) when faced with an infestation, then we can expect to see many infestations contained and eradicated, for less money, less time and less anguish.

Council Member Brewer talked specifically about helping the New York City Housing Authority with its bed bug control protocols. As you know, NYCHA services the pest control needs of its buildings directly with in-house pest control staff, and their resources are severely challenged. If they manage to do this and to do it well, then we will see a huge improvement in the lives of affected NYCHA residents. This alone would be a tremendous accomplishment. Successfully training social and health service providers who work for the city (to identify infestations in the homes of affected clients and patients and meaningfully participate in helping them, to prevent transmission to places they visit and to their own homes) would also be an extraordinary achievement.

Now that they’ve started, they will keep monitoring the prevalence of infestations.

I hope you will hold them accountable to these intentions. And help the city disseminate its (constructive) messages. Remember that until last week their messages were mixed, dispiriting and sometimes just wrong. The people who said those things are still there. Educating them first would be a good thing.

The list of what they will not do is long. Chief among them is not helping to establish social enterprise bed bug services for middle- and low-income households. The problem of access to affordable bed bug control services persists, and will not go away the day everyone learns to detect infestations early (and I hope that day is achievable).

The list of what the city cannot do is perhaps even longer. The city, for example, cannot regulate the pest control profession in the city. It cannot impose higher standards and cannot require additional training. It cannot fund research projects. It cannot solve Nicole’s problem. (Or will not, at some point it is effectively the same.)

I hope you will participate in this endeavor. Having a quiet chat with the neighbors, the super, the facilities manager at work, your friends and family might be a good first step. Surround yourself with bed bug-savvy people. Think about how you would go about solving an infestation if you had to. If you are responsible for a building or facility, learn and plan and keep up with developments. “We’ve never had a bed bug infestation” is not going to cut it anymore. What people will want to hear is “we have a plan for dealing with bed bugs, and have learned the following…”

Don’t stop going to the movies. The bed bugs are going to be here for a while.

I want to end by remembering what Stephen Kells wrote in 2006 (PDF):

When considering bed bugs as a systemic pest, we need to start looking for permanent sites within society that are likely to support reservoir infestations, and for temporary sites that have frequent human occupancy and provide bed bugs with an opportunity to spread to multiple sites. We must begin considering which inspection and control measures are needed in high-risk areas, what the costs in those areas will be, and what (if any) regulatory action might be necessary. I suspect that educating the public about prevention will be the most cost-effective procedure; however, the extent to which this information will be absorbed and used by people is unknown.

There are quite a lot of challenges ahead.

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