Chief health official calls bed bugs major threat to Mississippi hotels
by Ted Carter
Published: July 1,2012
Cimex lectularis — aka the bed bug — followed man out of the caves millenniums ago and has been biting the hand that feeds it ever since.
And, increasingly, guests of Mississippi hotels are enduring those bites, Dr. Jeffrey Brown says.
As state entomologist and director of the Mississippi Department of Health’s Environmental Services Bureau, Brown has been calling for the state and lodging industry to initiate a surge strategy in the war on bed bugs. Without it, both the public health and the fiscal health of the hotel-motel industry are at risk, including the state’s $3 billion casino gambling sector, Brown said.
No threat — not debt, not declining room revenues nor rising travel costs — matches the risk magnitude to the lodging industry than that of the tiny bug whose entire diet consists of human blood, he said.
“I have been preaching this for seven years. Somebody has got to do something,” the entomologist said in a late June interview.
“It’s getting out of hand.”
Brown’s ranks are short of what’s needed for an effective counterattack. His 125 environmental health inspectors have broad responsibilities that include sanitation inspections of restaurants and other facilities used by the public.
“If a complaint comes in we send out” the local environmental inspector, Brown said. But “they are swamped with monitoring restaurants.”
He has urged state officials to provide more resources and more regulatory authority. At the moment, his lone option for forcing a reluctant hotelier to quell an infestation is a shutdown order from the court, he said.
He has yet to take that step but says he is losing patience with hotel-motel operators who refuse to act.
“I can help them. I can keep them bug free…. I ask them, ‘Are you willing to do this and this?’ Most of the time these are people with small hotels. They say they don’t want to go through all this. So I can’t help them.”
Bed bugs can leave nasty bite marks and rashes but have never been proven to carry pathogens. Thus, they don’t carry the same public health priority and protections of actual disease carriers, Brown explained.
The public health official said his best hope for resources and stronger regulations is to convince legislators that the state’s visitor industry is headed for genuine danger. “We need the tourists here and this is hurting the business. If they do come here” and endure bed bugs or take bed bugs home with them “they aren’t coming back.”
Not all of the complaints have been from former hotel guests. Increasingly, calls are coming in from lawyers who represent victims of bed bug attacks, according to Brown.
Further, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood’s office has made inquiries on behalf of victims who have complained about unfair treatment from hotel operators, Brown said.
“People are getting smart,” he added. “They are putting” the bugs in a cup or vase to show their lawyers.
In the end, lawsuits regarding bed bugs could hurt hospitality industry revenues and generate unfavorable publicity, he warned.
Lodging industry unfazed
Problems with bed bugs apparently seldom come up in discussions hotel operations have among themselves. Notwithstanding growing state health department worries and Mississippi pest extermination companies reporting a steady rise in business, bed bugs are hardly front-and-center for the state’s lodging industry, says Linda G. Hornsby, executive director of the 350-member Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association.
“This is the first I am hearing of any of it,” she said. “Usually, they will call me if they are hearing of any problems.”
She insisted the association is pro-active in heading off such problems but in this instance no problem seems to exist. “We have had no reports in Mississippi – to my knowledge.”
Checks with the Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau and on the Mississippi coast supported Hornsby’s claim. Spokespeople for both bureaus say they are unaware of any complaints from visitors.
Gaines Sturdivant, president of Jackson-based MMI Hospitality, operators of hotels in several states including Mississippi, said he generally would “have to agree” with Hornsby’s assessment.
He acknowledged bed bugs are a hot-button issue for the industry, but emphasized that hoteliers around the country are “aware of the problem and we work at” fixing it.
On the other hand, Sturdivant said he could not dispute the assessment of the Health Department’s Brown. “He sees the worst of the worst. If you try to generalize that across the industry, I don’t know…”
He said he is in frequent contact with lodging professionals around Mississippi. “I only know what I hear and I don’t hear a lot” about the issues Brown raises, said Sturdivant, a member of the Jackson Convention & Visitors Bureau board.
He noted he is familiar with Brown’s work and considers him “one of the best resources we have anywhere in the country.”
Mike Cashion, president of the Mississippi Hospitality & Restaurant Association, said he thinks many of the state’s lodging operators have taken steps to stay ahead of the bed bug problem. He said at this point, “I don’t think it is a real prevalent problem. I haven’t heard of any real issue there.”
Cashion added, however, that he is working with Brown to come up with an education program for hotel operators. “Nobody is more qualified to address the issue” than Brown, Cashion said.
“Oh, come on,” Brown said in reacting to the industry’s claims of bed bugs being a minimal problem in Mississippi, at best.
“Nobody wants to admit it,” he said. “You cannot stick your head in the sand. You have got to be proactive.”
Dr. Richard deShavo, chairman of the University of Mississippi Medical Center Department of Medicine, has extensively researched the effects of bed bug bites. He said the state’s hotels and motels have “significant infestations,” a circumstance he attributes largely to increased international travel.
“There is a business interest in not talking about it,” deShavo said.
Bug hunters’ perspective
Mississippi’s lodging industry is “much more proactive than it has been in years past in trying to identify any kind of activity,” said David Mayley, manager of Orkin’s Long Beach branch, which services Mississippi’s half dozen coastal counties.
He said calls from hotels for inspections and eradications are up at all five Orkin branches around the state.
Inspection calls typically follow complaints from guests to hotel management. “In the majority of cases they are actually negative. We don’t find any indication of bed bug activity or an indication they have been there.”
He theorized that oftentimes media reports have caused the guest to be predisposed to think bed bugs are around.
In the inspections that turn up bed bugs, it’s seldom because of anything the hotel did or did not do, according to Mayley, who noted bed bugs stow away in luggage and are drawn out by the prospect of a “blood meal.”
You’ll not likely see them in the daylight. And when they do come out, they prefer to eat and run, Mayley said.
“The bed bug is a creature that likes to hide and come out to do what it needs to do and then go back into hiding.”
This is a big reason a housekeeping staff trained to look for signs that bugs have been around is a strong first line of defense, Mayley said.
His counterpart with Redd Pest Control, Mark Armola, said calls from hoteliers to his company, which services from Central Mississippi to the coast, have picked up. But the real spike has come from residential calls, he said. Those are “probably up tenfold.”
That presents an opportunity for a cycle: when people travel they bring the bugs from home to hotel. As Mayley explains: “Sometimes their guests leave them unexpected visitors.”
The cycle completes when subsequent hotel guests bring the bugs to previously un-infested homes.
Meanwhile, the newly arrived bugs will wait in the wings, monitoring the carbon dioxide output of their sleeping hosts at bedtime. As REM sleep arrives, the bugs go to work, Brown said.
“They actually love to bite the hand that feeds them,” he said.
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