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CT's public health commissioner on air quality, ticks and what to think of COVID

Dr. Manisha Juthani, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Public Health, speaks Thursday, July 28, during a press conference outside Hartford’s InterCommunity Health Care aimed at dispelling misinformation about how monkeypox is spread.
Mark Mirko
Connecticut Public
FILE, 2022: Dr. Manisha Juthani, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Public Health, speaks during a press conference outside Hartford’s InterCommunity Health Care aimed at dispelling misinformation about how monkeypox is spread.

As Connecticut works its way through a summer that's about as close to normal as we've had since the cornavirus pandemic began, the state's top public health official warns that COVID-19 is still an active threat. And as smoke from Canadian wildfires and insect-borne diseases make their way into the state, she wants residents to be aware of other health concerns, too.

Dr. Manisha Juthani, commissioner of the state Department of Public Health recently joined “All Things Considered” to discuss the health impacts of hazy air, mosquito and tick diseases, and the coronarvirus pandemic.

The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

John Henry Smith: A side effect of a hotter planet has been wildfires. The air. You've seen it, and it's occasionally been hazy here in the northeast from the Canadian wildfires. People with compromised lungs, they're always warned “Stay inside and be mindful of that smoke.” How much danger are healthier people in?

Dr. Juthani: So I think people in Connecticut —having been through a few cycles now of poor air quality days — are starting to get accustomed to the metric of the Air Quality Index. The basic thing to realize is that a lot of people have seen the scale, where you're looking at where the air quality index ranks and is it “good” to “moderate” to “unhealthy” for sensitive groups, “unhealthy” overall, “very unhealthy” or “hazardous.” And the reality is that for most people who are relatively healthy, going from “unhealthy” to “very unhealthy” and “hazardous” is where we really want to be certainly keeping our attention up.

For the “unhealthy” for sensitive groups, particularly for our youngest children and our oldest adults, those are the groups you really want to make sure are being aware of whether they have any sort of respiratory symptoms, feel unwell in general. Even things like headache that could accumulate with other symptoms could be signs of some experience that you're having from the unhealthy air quality.

John Henry Smith: With people venturing outside more, seemingly, we've seen occurrences of malaria in Florida and Texas, as well as tick-borne diseases. With the winters having been a bit warmer of late, I would think there would be more mosquitoes and more ticks to threaten us. Is that what the numbers tell us?

Dr. Juthani: For ticks, for example, it really needs to be a deep freeze cold for the ticks to really die off. And, with warmer temperatures in the winter-time, many of these ticks are surviving all year round. So, what I'd like people to know right now, as they should be going out, is to take certain precautions. At dawn and dusk, we know it's not always the most comfortable, but either wearing longer sleeves and pants, bug spray ... all [those] things that can potentially protect you from both sun exposure, but also mosquitoes and ticks. You can reduce the chance of getting one of these potential pathogens.

John Henry Smith: The directive we always got from our summer camp counselors was "don't pull them out if you see them on your body." Take a match, light it, then put it out and put the burning embers on the back of the tick so the tick pops its head out and so you don't get that infection with the head left in in the body. Now, that was many years ago. Is that still the advice?

Dr. Juthani: There are specific tick instruments that you can use to actually remove a tick if it is attached and engorged. If you're able to brush it off very quickly, that is obviously the best. It's not attached. It's not having that opportunity for its blood meal, which is when it ends up injecting the various different pathogens that it may have into a person. The longer it is attached, the longer it potentially has the opportunity to transmit any of these infections. So really you want to try to remove the tick fully. One of the ways that you described — a lot of people are going to have challenges with that. But if you do have an instrument where you're actually able to remove the tick, so that it doesn't leave anything behind and is able to come off and not allow it to complete its meal, that is the ideal. And certainly consult with your pediatrician if it's your child or your doctor in terms of next steps.

John Henry Smith: I can't have you here without asking you one or two questions about COVID-19. Obviously the public health emergency has ended. What is your outlook for this summer?

Dr. Juthani: We are thinking of COVID as one of our other respiratory infections, which is certainly going to need special attention as we head into the school year. We're going to be waiting to hear more about what is going to be recommended and what's going to be available in terms of vaccinations for COVID going into the fall. We anticipate that it will be an additional shot that's recommended for many going into this winter season. Again, many people did not get the bivalent updated shot last season. So for many people, it's going to be two years since they've had a shot. But I think right now, this is probably as close to a normal summer as we can anticipate we've had in many years.

John Henry Smith is Connecticut Public’s host of All Things Considered, its flagship afternoon news program. He's proud to be a part of the team that won a regional Emmy Award for The Vote: A Connecticut Conversation. In his 21st year as a professional broadcaster, he’s covered both news and sports.

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