DECATUR — Decatur Housing Authority Director Jim Alpi doesn’t have a background in pest control, but he’s learned more than he ever wanted to trying to keep bed bugs out of the agency's properties.
“It’s a problem of epic proportions,” Alpi said. “They’re something we’re continually dealing with.”
Alpi said when the DHA first started seeing bed bugs, it contracted pest control companies, but now the DHA keeps someone on staff at all times with a pest control license and does the treatments itself.
“We used two or three different companies and had limited success,” Alpi said. “And the expense was very high.”
Once nearly eradicated in the United States, the small, flat, brown bugs with a big bite are menacing cities from coast to coast as they scurry back in alarming numbers. Macon County is not immune.
The bugs are everywhere, and treating them is not only financially and physically difficult, but the stigma attached to an infestation can be the cruelest bite of all.
Like most professional pest control companies, DHA uses a variety of methods, including chemicals, such as diatomaceous earth, and heat treatment. With heat treatment, heaters are brought into a unit, which is warmed to a temperature of above 120 degrees for several hours, killing the bugs.
“We evaluate each situation to determine the right course,” Alpi said.
Alpi said glue traps are placed throughout multifamily to help monitor if there’s a bed bug presence, and tenants are asked to report them immediately and are given a checklist of what they need to do if bed bugs are found. This means primarily drying any clothes on high heat, then washing them, drying them again and sealing them in plastic bags for a minimum of two weeks.
Kathy Wade, Macon County Health Department director of environmental health, said the majority of calls her office has received are from high-rise apartment buildings, and the DHA has three of those. Alpi said the high-rise with the worst bed bug issues is the Lexington, 1221 N. VanDyke St.
Stephen Brilley has lived at the Lexington for 17 years, but never saw a bed bug until this year.
“I got them big time,” Brilley said. “I have plastic on everything. They’ve come in and sprayed, and I’ve gotten rid of a bunch of clothes. They’ll be gone for a couple days, then they’re back — I’m still seeing those little ones. I’ll squeeze them and blood comes, and and I’m like, damn, they got me. Getting rid of them is hell.”
Brilley said when the bed bugs first invaded his apartment, he experienced bad bites, though they’ve subsided since the treatments. Brilley said he’s scheduled to stay in an extra apartment at the Lexington — a converted game room — while the DHA treats his apartment again. But there’s a waiting list.
“I don’t know, there might be four or five people ahead of me,” Brilley said.
Alpi said the DHA has had plenty of success with its methods, but the Lexington has had the most recurrences.
“We try to treat adjacent, above and below an area when we find them, but we’ve had re-infestations there,” Alpi said. “If we use the heat method, we do move the resident overnight into another unit where they can sleep overnight and then go back. But we have enough equipment to treat one unit at a time. We’re trying to do that two days a week. If there are more residents than that who need it, it can cause some delay.
“There’s just no easy solution, and I don’t know that anyone knows the answer. I’d love to find a silver bullet, but I haven’t found it yet.”
Beating bed bugs
Tina Rice is the property manager at Wabash Crossing and said bed bugs are something her staff deals with in the apartment complex’s 471 units. Rice said vigilance is the best policy.
“I don’t have bed bugs in 471 units, but we’re in and out of those units all day, and all my guys carry a spray bottle full of alcohol,” Rice said. “They wear gloves when they pick up furniture. We find mattresses sitting outside and not every one of them has bed bugs, but we treat every one of them exactly the same.”
Rubbing alcohol containing at least 91 percent alcohol is effective at killing bed bugs on contact, and is one of many preventative measures that can be taken to make sure those who suspect they may have come into contact with bed bugs.
“We work hard to make sure we don’t get them,” said Scott Fisher of Scottie’s Pest Control in Decatur. “If you come out of a house and your booties are ripped, you have the rubbing alcohol out spraying yourself down.”
Fisher has been in pest control 38 years but never saw a bed bug until seven or eight years ago. Now, Fisher said he performs two bed bug jobs a week.
Tim Husen, entomologist and technical services manager with pest control company Orkin, said some simple inspection can catch bed bugs early enough that they don’t become as pricey an infestation.
“There’s no way to guarantee you won’t get bedbugs, but if you regularly check the locations in your home where bed bugs hide, you can catch them early,” Husen said.
Because bed bugs are capable of surviving for long periods of time between feedings, during the day they hide seams of mattresses, box springs, bed frames, dressers, tables, cracks and crevices, behind wallpaper, electric outlets, or under any clutter or objects around a bed. Check for any blood staining on mattresses, which is also a sign of infestation.
Hotels are a prime source of bed bugs. Nearly every source said the best practice for staying in hotels is to walk in, place luggage in the bathtub, then check around the bed, under the edges of the mattress, and in the curtains.
“I even tap the headboard and outlets, just to make sure,” Irons said.
Wade said many hotels now use mattress encasements that bed bugs can’t get through. The encasements, usually made of vinyl or polyurethane, keep bed bugs from escaping the mattress, eventually starving them, and also keep bed bugs from invading the mattress.
Alpi said the DHA furnishes mattress encasements. Fisher and Wade also recommended encasements, with Fisher saying to make sure to purchase an encasement and not just a mattress cover.
Like Rice’s staff at Wabash Crossing, most hospitals and home health care staff are now taking precautions. Robyn Reising, Decatur Memorial Hospital chief nursing officer, said all patients are assessed when they’re admitted to the hospital.
“If suspicion or confirmation of bed bugs is identified during the assessment, the patient is isolated and treated,” Reising said in a statement. “Once the patient is treated, they are moved to another room so that an experienced pest management professional can inspect and treat the original room as needed.”
HSHS St. Mary's Hospital was contacted for this article, but declined an opportunity to comment.
Rice said, so far, the precautions are working for employees at Wabash Crossing.
“I have a staff of 25 to 30, and — knock on wood — no one has ever taken them home,” Rice said. “I think the key is getting past the panic and fear. They’re there, but it’s not, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re everywhere.’”
Few people wanted to share their stories of bed bugs, and some that did refused to give their names. In fact, several of those attending coalition meetings who spoke up at the June meeting attended by the Herald & Review asked not to be included in the story, or didn’t return multiple phone calls for comment on the issue.
Brilley said he knows of Lexington residents who have bed bugs but won’t admit it and said friends and family have started avoiding him.
“It’s really turned people against me — my mom and dad, my friends … nobody will come to my apartment,” Brilley said. “And I don’t even go to people’s houses now.”
But the stigma surrounding bed bugs that isn’t necessarily an accurate portrayal of the problem.
“They’re not something to be ashamed of,” said Richelle Irons, Director of Neighborhood Services for the city of Decatur. “They’re not specific to low-income, or to unclean environments. That’s a myth. We know stories of white-collar professionals who stay in 5-star hotels bringing them home. People who travel are the ones more likely to spread them. Bed bugs don’t discriminate. They don’t care.”
But, in some ways, the bed bugs’ lack of discrimination is the scariest thing about them. While they’re most likely to be found in hotels and high-rise apartments, they can be anywhere.
“We certainly don’t want people to panic and think everywhere they go they’re going to run into bed bugs,” said Dianna Heyer, Macon County Health Department administrator. “But they are a nuisance and something the public should be aware of.”
While anyone those without the means to afford treatment are often stuck with them.
“The thing about bedbugs is since they don’t spread infectious disease so there’s no funding out there for helping families get rid of these,” Heyer said. “A lot of clientele can’t afford it. They’re already facing a number of socioeconomic issues, so they’re going to be more impacted by it. Unfortunately, I haven’t found any grants out there yet that will cover the cost.”
Fisher admitted if he had bed bugs, he’d struggle affording to get rid of them. He said the standard is three treatments at $250 to $1,000 per treatment, depending on the size of the dwelling.
“I could afford one or two treatments, but that third one would cripple me,” Fisher said. “And I know I wouldn’t want them. Knowing the bugs are coming after you when you’re sleeping? That mentally wears you out.”
Irons said it is fortunate that many lower-income people live in public housing, which can afford to pay for pest control.
“Wabash, the Decatur Housing Authority … they serve low-income clientele and they have the resources to get rid of them,” Irons said. “It’s a drain, but at least they can do it.”
Rice agreed, but said she feels for those trying to furnish their apartments.
“The worst thing is you have someone trying to get on their feet and someone gives them a sofa and a bed, and you have to be the bad guy who comes in and tells them, ‘You have to get rid of everything,’” Rice said.
Wade said until the financial aspect is addressed, bed bugs aren’t going anywhere.
“That’s the problem everyone runs into, whether it’s property managers or actual residents themselves,” Wade said. “It’s so costly to treat them, so it grows and grows.”
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