LONSBERRY: Is There West Nile At The State Fair?

NYS Fair

NYS Fair

Is there West Nile virus at the New York state fair?

That's a natural suspicion that arises out of some unusual conduct Wednesday by the Onondaga County Health Department.

Another suspicion that arises is that the department may have changed its practices -- and possibly endangered public health -- in order to avoid hurting attendance at the fair or raising embarrassing questions while the governor was in town.

Here's the background.

Each summer, the Onondaga County Health Department tests mosquitoes for the presence of the West Nile virus and eastern equine encephalitis. It does this by placing traps in wet areas and then examining the bodily fluids of the captured mosquitoes.

When a positive result is found -- typically when a mosquito is determined to have the West Nile virus -- a public alert is issued telling people of the result and where the infected mosquito was found. The purpose is to warn people about the presence of the potentially deadly virus so that they might take appropriate precautions -- such as avoiding the area or dressing protectively and using repellents.

In every instance turned up by a computer search, that is how the matter has been handled by the Onondaga County Health Department.

Until yesterday.

Which was the opening day of the Great New York State Fair, and a day at which the governor was present and honored.

Yesterday, the health department announced that its traps had turned up two infected mosquitoes. One in the town of Cicero and one in the town of Geddes. Geddes is where the fair is held. Interestingly, the health department handled these notifications differently.

The location of the Cicero mosquito was released -- in keeping with county practice. But the location of the Geddes mosquito was not -- a deviation from county practice.

The health department notified the public that a mosquito carrying the West Nile virus was caught on East Taft Road -- near the Cicero Swamp Wildlife Management Area. That was apparently for folks who might be surprised there are mosquitoes in a swamp.

The health department would not say where in Geddes it caught the infected mosquito. Instead, it said location didn't matter because people should take precautions against mosquitoes all the time no matter where they are.

Then why test and announce locations at all?

And why, in previous years, when infected mosquitoes have turned up in Geddes were specific locations announced?

Presumably the practice of the department of releasing the specific location helps protect public health -- or why would they do it? -- and so conversely failing to release the specific location would seem to endanger public health.

The only thing different about this town at this time is the fair.

And the health department's suspicious actions naturally raise suspicions in the public mind. Namely, if the department won't say where in Geddes they found the virus, did they find it at or near the fairgrounds? Or perhaps at the nearby Lakeview Amphitheater, where thousands gather for concerts?

If the mosquito was found in some other part of the town -- away from those big-money properties -- then it would be good to announce that, to put the public mind at ease. But inasmuch as no such announcement was made, people are naturally going to think the virus was found near the fair and the amphitheater.

Keeping that information from the public would protect the fair and the amphitheater, but endanger the public.

And a county health department wouldn't do that, would it?

Or would it?

Walking across the fairgrounds yesterday, there was no noticeable signage or warning about West Nile or taking precautions against mosquitoes. And there was plenty of exposed skin.

The fair will attract about a million people. The amphitheater is the county executive's baby. Both need to flourish or politicians are going to have egg on their faces.

And that makes this whole thing stink.

At best, the Onondaga County Health Department has endangered its relationship of trust with the community by engaging in this odd and suspicious behavior. At worst, it has endangered the public health by failing to warn more than a million people that they need to take special precautions because of special proximity to a dangerous virus.

At worst, some bureaucrats chose to protect their boss's pet project and the state fair cash cow instead of the masses of people relying upon them to safeguard their health and their families.

Yesterday, the Onondaga County Health Department got it wrong.

Today, it needs to get it right.

It must handle this situation like every other situation, it must release the location of the infected mosquito.

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