HOULTON, Maine — COVID-19 may have increased Maine residents’ potential exposure to ticks, according to a new report from the University of Maine.
Changes in people’s activities during COVID-19, such as spending more time outdoors to avoid close contact with other people, led to more opportunities for tick encounters, according to UMaine’s 2020 annual report from its Tick Surveillance Program.
Of the more than 3,000 ticks voluntarily submitted to the program, 36 percent came from people who reported spending more time outdoors in 2020 than they did in 2019, such as in gardening and yard work or in forested habitats, the report said.
While the study was dependent on voluntary submissions and therefore limited in scientific scope, it showed an increase in the number of people engaging in outdoor activities, as well as the percentage of ticks carrying diseases amongst those submitted to the tick lab.
“This increase in outdoor activity, coupled with ideal weather conditions during the spring and fall peaks in adult blacklegged tick activity may have contributed to increased tick encounters statewide,” the report said.
The blacklegged tick, also known as the deer tick, can carry pathogens that cause illnesses such as Lyme disease, putting people who come in contact with them at serious risk.
Other diseases, such as anaplasmosis and babesiosis, are also caused by pathogens found in ticks, although they are not as frequent as Lyme disease. With the spring season underway in Maine, ticks are already emerging this year.
“When you’re stuck at home, there’s not a lot of other things to do other than get outside and try to enjoy the outdoors,” Griffin Dill, coordinator at the UMaine Tick Lab, said. “And we found some fairly significant numbers of people that were indicating that yes, they indeed increased their time outdoors based on the pandemic.”
About 66 percent of the blacklegged ticks submitted to the UM lab came from around the person’s own residence in 2020, according to the report.
The number of tick submissions to the lab overall went up by more than 500 from the previous year, from around 2,700 in 2019 to more than 3,200 in 2020. The most commonly submitted tick was by far the blacklegged tick, followed by the American dog tick and the woodchuck tick. Of all the blacklegged ticks submitted, 36 percent tested positive for Lyme disease.
The coastal counties of Cumberland and Hancock had the most tick submissions, with more than 400 each. The county that had the most prevalence for Lyme disease amongst submitted ticks was Lincoln County, with 115 out of 257 submitted blacklegged ticks, or 44 percent, testing positive for the pathogen. The report noted that because the ticks are collected and submitted voluntarily by members of the public, there may be bias toward some geographic areas over others when it comes to locations.
The report also showed a noticeable change in how people encounter ticks compared to the previous year. While gardening and yard work remained the top activity for tick encounters, there was a 13 percent increase in the number of people who were playing outside, and a 4 percent increase in people who came across ticks while hiking.
But outdoor activities like fishing, hunting and camping ranked among some of the lowest on the list. Dill said the lower percentages could be partially attributed to less protection when being outside at home as compared to preparing for an outdoor expedition.
“Our general thought process is that a lot of the times when we are planning to go out, a lot of us know that ticks are a threat,” Dill said. “We’re going to bring precautions, we’re going to bring repellents, we’re going to wear protective clothing. Whereas if you’re just taking a walk or doing some yard work, that thought process might not be there.”