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The COVID-19 pandemic may spare us from another plague: Bedbugs

Given the drastic pandemic-induced reductions in travel, the chances of bringing home these uninvited guests have been greatly curtailed.

The COVID-19 pandemic may spare us from another plague: Bedbugs

Given the pandemic-induced reductions in travel, the chances of bringing home bedbugs have been greatly curtailed. (Illustration: Gracia Lam/The New York Times)

This year’s plague, the newly emerged coronavirus, will likely spare many people from being attacked by an ancient scourge: bedbugs. Given the drastic pandemic-induced reductions in travel and nights spent in hotels, motels and other venues outside one’s home, the chances of being bitten by or bringing home these uninvited guests have been greatly curtailed.

But that’s not a license to become complacent about a pesky insect that has been around for at least four millenniums, defied eradication for more than a century and, under normal circumstances, can be extremely challenging to avoid.

Last year, in a survey of 50 American cities by Orkin, a leading extermination company, the nation’s capital proved to be the most heavily infested, followed by Baltimore, Chicago and Los Angeles. Orkin ranked New York sixth, after Columbus, Ohio, although Terminex gave New York a dubious top billing among 15 American cities. In just five years, from 2004 to 2009, to New York’s City Council rose from 537 to 10,985, prompting restrictions on how to discard mattresses to keep from spreading contamination.

Worldwide, professional pest managers have reported, the number of bedbug infestations increased by more than 4,500per cent in the early years of this century. The insects have become especially problematic in the United States, where an estimated 1 American in 5 has either been plagued by them personally or knows someone who has been, often at great expense.

A friend, whose suitcase became a bedbug vector apparently during storage in the luggage room of a high-end hotel in upstate New York, found one crawling on her when she donned nightclothes and sat down to read shortly after arriving home in Brooklyn. She spent US$1,300 to get the house fumigated, and now routinely quarantines her luggage and its contents out in the freezing cold after a trip to minimize the risk of a repeat invasion.

What my friend didn’t know, however, is that bedbugs can live for many <em>months</em> without feeding on human blood, so waiting even weeks to unpack may not help. Brooklyn backyards and even home freezers may not be cold enough to kill them: Experts recommend minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

As an Orkin entomologist, Chelle Hartzer, warned about bedbugs, “They are excellent hitchhikers and they reproduce quickly, which make it nearly impossible to prevent bedbugs.” Increases in both domestic and international travel in recent decades contributed greatly to their current ubiquity. Complicating control efforts, they’ve become resistant to most commonly used insecticides, including pyrethroids.

No one, not the most fastidious among us, is immune to a bedbug infestation. They can be found just about any place where people sit or sleep – cinemas, offices, schools, churches, hospitals, buses, trains, cruise ships and airplanes, as well as in hotels and homes. According to a lengthy report by Australian scientists in Clinical Microbiology Reviews, an entire building’s infestation can start with only a few bedbugs or, possibly, even a single female.

One impregnated female can lay two to five eggs a day.

And the bugs can be devilishly difficult to detect. The eggs of this flightless insect are pearly white and the size of a pinhead; adults are brown or reddish brown (if they had a recent blood meal) and the size of an apple seed, about a quarter-inch long. Two French doctors, writing in The New England Journal of Medicine in June, reported that “between blood meals, bedbugs hide in dark places, such as household cracks and crevices, walls, luggage, bedclothes, mattresses, bedsprings, bed frames, spaces under baseboards, loose or peeling wallpaper, electrical switch plates and conduits for electrical cables.”

Although they can bite painlessly at any time of the day, most often they come out of hiding at night to feast on the blood of their sleeping human hosts, sometimes leaving a telltale trail of blood on bedsheets. The bugs neither hop nor jump, but they can crawl fast – several feet in under a minute – for such a tiny creature.

Bedbugs rarely transmit disease, although excessively scratching their itchy bites can result in secondary infections. (On the positive side, the Australian authors wrote, their scent glands secrete a substance that inhibits microbial growth and that may one day become pharmacologically useful.) Not everyone reacts to bedbug bites, so people sometimes fail to suspect them as the cause of their bites when a bedmate seems not to have been bitten.

Along with a maddening itch, knowing that bedbugs are present in one’s home can drive a person crazy. The French scientists reported that “sleep deprivation, insomnia or sleeplessness are commonly associated with infestation.” The psychological toll can sometimes be extreme, resulting in nightmares, anxiety and an inability to function, they added.

“People infested with bedbugs may become socially isolated,” the Australians wrote. “With some individuals, even when the problem is solved, the psychological trauma can develop into a delusionary state, whereby the patients feel bites and insects crawling on them even if the bedbugs have been eliminated.”

Preventing exposure in the first place is the best approach to bedbug control, although I honestly can’t imagine following all the precautionary measures experts suggest in every new place I may sit or sleep. Upon arrival in a hotel room, the advice goes, place your luggage unopened on a rack (not on a bed, floor or upholstered chair). Before unpacking, check the room for telltale bedbug signs like tiny brown spots of their droppings on the sheets and mattress. With your cellphone at the ready, use the room key card or a credit card to run along mattress seams, cracks in the headboard and footboard and folds of upholstered furniture and immediately (act fast, they move quickly) take a picture of any bugs you find to show the manager.

In multiple dwellings, bedbugs can climb from one apartment to the others above or below in the row, so let neighbors know if your apartment becomes infested and seek professional help to eradicate the bugs without delay. One thing you don’t have to do is throw out your clothing, bedding or even the furniture. Launder whatever can be washed in very hot water (140 degrees Fahrenheit – a setting higher than most water heaters) and consult a licensed professional about treating suspect furniture. Avoid pest control products that make exaggerated claims; use only pesticides that have been registered with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Most important: Avoid bringing the bugs into your home by resisting the temptation to “rescue” furniture others have discarded. And don’t tempt others; seal all bedding and cushioned furnishings in plastic when you throw it out.

By Jane E Brody © The New York Times