Biologist Lisa Wagenbrenner grabbed a mesh bag of mosquitoes from inside the tackle box. Underneath, a fetid container of water had attracted the tiny insects – 58 female common brown house mosquitoes.
These already had their blood meal. They had come to lay eggs.
A fan inside the box swept them up so Wagenbrenner could bring them back to her Chesapeake laboratory. There they’d be frozen, identified, ground up in tiny tubes and tested for West Nile virus.
Across Virginia, similar scenes have played out over the spring, the hot summer months and now the fall. And what they’re finding is frightening: There have been 38 human cases of West Nile as of Oct. 5, a sharp uptick from the previous record of 29, according to the state health department. That number is likely to increase as mosquito season comes to an end on Oct. 31, experts say.
Two of those cases have led to deaths, making 2018 potentially the first year the state has seen more than one fatality from the virus since it first arrived in 2002.
Six of the 38 were in South Hampton Roads, with three in Norfolk, one in Virginia Beach and two in Chesapeake.
“We’ve never had this many,” Wagenbrenner said early one recent Wednesday morning as she drove a pickup truck from trap site to trap site. “We’re freaking out.”
While death and serious neurological symptoms are rare, West Nile can still result in long-term hospital stays and derail someone’s life. Municipalities try to tamp down mosquito populations with spraying, trapping and testing, but they’re on their own. State code puts the responsibility for mosquito control squarely on localities. And some spend more than others.
“Because of a mosquito, my father will not be able to walk me down the aisle at my wedding in April,” said Andrea Karr, a Virginia Beach resident whose 69-year-old father, Ronald, has been hospitalized with West Nile since Aug. 27 near his home in Maryland.
“Because of a mosquito, my father may be bedridden for the rest of his life,” she said. “It’s crazy that a bug so small can cause so much pain.”
The mosquitoes Wagenbrenner and her other team members plucked from traps were added to the the 199,665 they’ve trapped this season.
That’s a typical number in a given year, across roughly 100 trap sites.
She works for Chesapeake’s Mosquito Control Commission, a $4.5-million, 39-employee program. Workers lure mosquitoes to traps filled with liquid carbon dioxide that mimics the gas emitted by creatures the insects like to bite. Biologists team up with field technicians to find out where mosquitoes are breeding, where people are getting bit and where they should spray insecticides.
One cent of every $100 of a home’s assessed value in Chesapeake goes to the commission, so someone who owns a $300,000 house pays $30 a year.
The program is unique in that it acts as its own entity, rather than being folded under a public works department like in Virginia Beach or the health department in Norfolk.
Norfolk’s mosquito control budget is about $740,000 and Virginia Beach’s is a little over $2 million.
The biggest chunks of Chesapeake’s budget go to source reduction – like maintaining drainage spots where mosquitoes like to lay eggs – as well as spraying. Other Hampton Roads cities perform similar tasks.
Chesapeake’s commission this year has performed 963 tests for West Nile and eastern equine encephalitis, another virus transmitted by mosquitoes that can be fatal to horses. Of those tests, 20 have come back positive for West Nile – a 100 percent increase over last year, said the commission’s director, Dreda Symonds.
Lisa Wagenbrenner, biologist with Chesapeake’s Mosquito Control Commission, collects mosquitoes in a gravid trap Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018.
Moreover, mosquitoes this year were infected with West Nile at a rate that’s about 3.25 times higher than last year. That means the increase in mosquitoes with West Nile is due to a higher infection rate, not just more testing.
The West Nile surge can be attributed to a particularly hot summer extending into September, which Symonds noted in a recent report saw average daily temperatures 7 degrees above the norm.
“Oftentimes, our worst seasons have been our driest and hottest seasons,” said David Gaines, a public health entomologist with the Virginia Department of Health.
In cooler temperatures, around 75 degrees, it takes about a month – the entire lifespan of some species of mosquitoes – for the virus to fully invade the insect and its salivary glands. But when it’s 85 and above, that time frame is sharply dwindled to about three days, Gaines said.
Mosquitoes pick up the virus from already-infected birds and then spread it to humans.
If you infected 100 people with West Nile virus, about 80 percent wouldn’t show symptoms. Maybe a little ache, but mostly nothing to speak of.
The other 20 percent would show some symptoms like fever, muscle aches, possibly a rash.
One percent of those people would show the most severe symptom of West Nile virus: an invasion of someone’s neurological system, said Dr. Nancy Khardori, chief of infectious disease at Eastern Virginia Medical School.
It can cause a range of issues from respiratory problems to acute flaccid paralysis.
So then the question is, why do most people have no symptoms?
“No one knows why,” Khardori said. That confusion makes another concern all the more worrisome: West Nile currently has no cure and no vaccination has been developed to cure it. Khardori said research is happening behind the scenes, and takes time.
Andrea Karr’s father can count himself among that slim percent of people who get serious symptoms.
He was taken to a Maryland hospital on Aug. 27, near where they grew up and where he still lives.
Ronald Karr, 69, of Maryland, is pictured with his niece. Karr was diagnosed this summer with West Nile virus a couple weeks after he was hosp…
Ronald Karr had a fever, nausea and confusion – one time, he got out of bed at home, walked to the living room and got back into bed without realizing he ever left. He was diagnosed with West Nile almost two weeks later, his daughter said.
During those first couple weeks, he couldn’t talk, was unconscious for periods of time and had to be moved to an intensive care unit.
“It was traumatizing. I had never seen my dad in the hospital before,” Karr said, describing her father as the strong, stubborn one in the family who wanted to be the “protector of everything.”
Today, she says, his health has improved and he is more alert, although he can’t talk much and can’t leave his bed.
Prior to the virus, he had rheumatoid arthritis in his knees and hips. It was hard for him to go outside much, and he usually left only to take the dog to the backyard or shop for groceries.
The virus surprised the whole family, Andrea Karr said.
She hopes her father’s story can inspire others to take the right precautions, like wearing insect repellent.
“West Nile virus can change your life in an instant,” she said.