HANSON — The Board of Selectmen voted 5-0 on Tuesday, Sept. 10 to close all town fields, including school athletic fields, from dusk to dawn until after the first hard frost due to the elevated threat of Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) and West Nile virus (WNV) in the region.
While the vote, in response to concerns expressed by the public — including a handful of parents at the meeting — was initially intended to include WHRHS athletic fields, the was later reminded that those fields are in Whitman and the school is in Hanson.
“We’re just talking about this very small window, so just lock it down for a couple weeks,” said Selectmen Chairman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett, expressing her personal concern. “It’s not going to kill us not to have practice, but it could kill us to have practice.”
Test samples of mosquitos in Whitman have tested positive for EEE over the summer and the risk level is high for EEE while low for WNV, according to the Mass. Department of Public Health. Hanson is listed as at moderate risk for EEE and low for WNV.
After consulting with the Whitman Board of Health, the Hanson Board of Health, Whitman Fire Chief Timothy Grenno and Hanson Deputy Fire Chief Rob O’Brien, on Thursday, Sept. 5, Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak recommended that there be no change to current outdoor evening activities in either town, including school activities and sports for the Whitman-Hanson Regional School District. [See related story].
“What I’m seeing across the state is, typically, they raise the risk to critical after someone is diagnosed, or an animal is diagnosed or someone is dying,” asked parent Michelle Bourgelas of Holmes Street. “Is that what Hanson is waiting for?”
She urged that fields be closed right away to protect student-athletes, noting that other high-risk communities have done so.
“What are we waiting for?” Bourgelas said. “Whitman is high [risk] and youth sports are playing at Whitman High School at 8 o’clock at night when Whitman is high.”
The parents said they have already talked to school officials and were told the school district follows advice of the boards of health.
The Selectmen’s vote came after an update FitzGerald-Kemmett requested as a courtesy from Health Board Chairman Arlene Dias.
“Things haven’t changed for Hanson,” Dias said. “Hanson was still listed as moderate risk, so the recommendations that had been made a month and a half ago — dusk-to-dawn be careful being outside, wear repellent, long-sleeved clothing, long pants — that hasn’t changed for us because we haven’t had any more positive mosquitos in Hanson.”
She said people should continue to exercise those cautions until after the first hard frost. Some communities are being sprayed again, but Dias said Hanson is not on that list.
FitzGerald-Kemmett asked when the town should take additional action.
“We should have started taking them a month ago, in terms of making sure when you’re out at night that you’re wearing repellent, that you’re wearing long-sleeved clothing, make sure there is no standing water — the same things that we had recommended when they first got that positive test,” Dias said. “If the DPH considered us critical, then we would implement people not being on the fields for the schools and town places.”
Dias said the schools do not have to wait for such an order from the Board of Health.
“They can, on their own, decide they don’t want the kids on the fields,” she said. “I think, if was critical in Hanson, they would want to protect the kids, they would want to close the fields.”
She said the Board of Health had already voted a couple of months ago to close the fields if Hanson was placed on the critical risk list.
FitzGerald-Kemmett said she would be expressing that concern to the school disctrict if her children were still in school.
“I don’t know how responsive they would be to that, but I certainly would be expressing it,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said.
Dias said the state has not changed the guidelines to require closing fields at the moderate-to-high risk levels and asked if youth sports participants were being required to use repellent when playing after dusk.
“Think about it, bug spray and sweat — how does that work?” said parent Danielle O’Brien of William Way. “You sweat, your bug spray is gone. I can spray my son up and down but, when he’s out there, he’s in full gear head-to-toe and it’s gone.”
O’Brien said parents have few options.
“Right now, my son’s not playing Saturday night because I’m not taking that risk,” she said.
Lakeside Road resident Meghan Moore told Selectmen about how her brother was left with brain damage after being infected with EEE more than 40 years ago when he was 6 years old.
“We didn’t have all of these warning signs and people telling us, ‘Enough. Get in the house.’ We’re being told that,” she said. “Why are we putting our kids outside and putting them at risk for something. … Someone has to start listening to parents.”
Moore’s mother Marie Clifford of Gorwin Drive also spoke of her son’s situation.
“For 40 years he’s had a seizure problem, he’s brain-damaged and it’s been hell for a long time,” she said. “Today, hospitals can keep them alive … but the side-effects are terrible.”
Moore also asked how often the state tests mosquito samples. Dias said that is done weekly.
“I’m not sure how to be responsive,” FitzGerald-Kemmett initially said, asking if the Board of Health could meet on an emergency basis ahead of its posted meeting next week.
Selectman Kenny Mitchell also asked if the parents had spoken to the football coaches or youth sports boards. Parents said those officials, too, refer them to the Board of Health and that W-H Athletic Director Bob Rodgers has been “making a mockery of us” on Twitter by equating the use of bug spray to buckling a seat belt.
Dias said she would reach out to Rodgers about the issue.
“Everyone thinks it’s the off chance, it’s not going to happen to me,” O’Brien said.
“I’m not going to lie, I’ve changed my habits,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “I used to walk my dog after dark, but I’m just not going to risk it.”
Another parent, and youth sport board member, Warren McCallum of Thayer Drive said one of the concerns among the groups centers on being the stand-alone on a board to advocate against playing after dusk.
“I know that’s part of the struggle the football board is going through,” he said. “They’re looking for a scapegoat in some way, someone they can say to the parents, ‘Oh, we can’t [play] because the Board of Health says it’s time to cancel.’ … Sometimes the town needs that easy way out.”
“Sometimes you’ve got to do the right thing,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said.
“Would a two-word answer be common sense?” said Selectmen Jim Hickey, who was a youth coach in Hanson for 20 years. “It goes right down to them. There’s no need to play a Saturday night game. … Somebody’s going to come out of this looking like the bad guy, whether it’s a parent, the Board of Health, Board of Selectmen or the schools and it just comes down to common sense.”