Dallas County escalated its war on mosquitoes today, with County Judge Clay Jenkins declaring a state of emergency and requesting that five planes be made available from the Texas Department of Emergency Management in order to begin spraying pesticide aerially over North Dallas and the Park Cities. The outbreak of West Nile virus this summer has killed nine people.
In a news conference this afternoon, Jenkins and Texas Department of Health Services Commissioner Dr. David Lakey called aerial spraying "totally safe." Individual cities will still be able to elect whether or not to spray within their boundaries, with the decision being subject to a vote by each City Council. For now, Dallas County doesn't plan to spray in any unincorporated areas.
Jenkins said county officials had spent the afternoon meeting with representatives from the state Health and Human Services division and the Dallas County Medical Society, as well as corresponding by phone with the CDC's "chief of mosquito-related diseases." Together, he said, they'd decided that the outbreak warrants aerial spraying to the affected cities, which include Highland Park, University Park and North Dallas where it's bounded by the tollway, 635 and Interstate 30.
"The recommendation of the top official in the United States of America tells us that [aerial spraying] is far more uniform," Jenkins said, "and is as safe or safer, and has a better chase of eradicating this disease that's claimed lives in Dallas County already." (However, as our own Jim Schutze has pointed out repeatedly, the chemical cocktail used is controversial, with dueling studies as to its safety and efficacy.)
Jenkins said that on Monday, the county will also begin a three-day intensive ground spray of the "hardest-hit areas." The planes aren't expected to be available until late next week.
Someone asked what Jenkins would do if cities "resisted" being sprayed.
"I believe in democracy," Jenkins responded, but added that it was his "lay opinion" that aerial spraying was the best option. "We will do everything in our power to protect the people of Dallas County from this epidemic."
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Jenkins said the spraying will take place at night; both he and Lakey encouraged common-sense precautions, including keeping people and animals out of the spray. They also recommended wearing insect repellent and protective clothing, as well as limiting outdoor activity during dawn and dusk, when mosquitoes are most active.
"I firmly believe that aerial spraying is safe," Lakey said. He said that he didn't believe that the spray would affect other wildlife, including bees, butterflies and ladybugs. Nonetheless, he said, "I understand the inherent apprehension a lot of folks have when chemicals are released by airplanes."
The three-day spraying by trucks "may be enough of a resource" to address the issue of West Nile, he said, but added that Dallas County "can't wait" to request planes. He noted that West Nile has an incubation period of two to 14 days, meaning that even if spraying began today, there could still be potential new cases in two weeks.
"I think this is a public health emergency here in Dallas County," Lakey said.