New Paltz is arguably best known for its outdoor attractions, with the Rail Trail and Mohonk Mountain House staples of the town and tourism of the area. However, the region is also a hot spot for a less attractive reason: Lyme disease.
Ninety-five percent of Lyme disease cases reported in 2012 came from 13 states, mostly in the northeastern United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control, with the state of New York accounting for approximately 30 percent of all Lyme disease cases nationally. Since Lyme disease first became reportable in 1986, over 95,000 cases of Lyme were reported in New York state, according to the New York State Department of Health. Experts say that number may be an underestimate due to the many cases that may occur without clear symptoms.
On April 2, the SUNY New Paltz Director of Environmental Health and Safety, Michael G. Malloy sent out a campus-wide email warning students of the risks of Lyme in the New Paltz area.
“Cases of Lyme disease are most common in our mid-Hudson Valley area and a large portion of the northeast,” he wrote. “The debilitating effects of Lyme disease can include severe headaches, arthritis, cardiac abnormalities and central nervous system involvement leading to neurological disorders.”
Impact on outdoor tourism
Despite the prevalence of the tick-borne disease, Lyme’s impact on the New Paltz outdoor tourism industry is surprisingly minimal.
Lauren Eicher, co-president of the Outing Club, a student group at the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz, said ticks are something the group is “mild[ly]” concerned about.
“I’d say overall it’s a mild concern in the back of our minds,” she said. “We take precautions by wearing long pants and high socks, but unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do [for] protection in the hot weather when it’s just too hot to wear long pants.”
Eicher said she sees more ticks during club trips in the warmer months, and that when someone gets a tick they often don’t say anything because it is so common.
“Lyme disease is by far misunderstood and not taken as seriously as it should be,” she said. “Many people are more concerned with ticks just because it’s a bug sucking their blood as opposed to a bug that carries a potential deadly disease.”
Andrew Zalewski, manager of Rock & Snow, a New Paltz shop specializing in outdoor climbing gear and clothing, said Lyme disease is not a large concern for customers looking to go up on the mountain, and the risk of the disease has not hurt business.
“I know two dozen people who have had Lyme disease, and I’ve had three ticks,” he said. “I just don’t know if people want to be that paranoid about going outdoors. People are scared of bears, and there are bears, but that doesn’t stop people from going hiking.”
A native Ulster County resident, Zalewski said he thinks people do not usually pick up deer ticks hiking, but rather much closer to home.
“I’ve lived here my whole life, 34 years, I’ve had three ticks on me, and all three have been from mowing my lawn,” he said.
Rock & Snow stocks clothing treated in an insect repellent called permethrin, a chemical derived from chrysanthemum flowers, which repels ticks and other insects. However, Zalewski said that there is no customer demand for it. If customers had to choose between a pair of pants that was treated with permethrin and one that was not, they would not pay more for the protection, he said.
In contrast, other outdoor businesses have been significantly affected by Lyme, according to ecologist Dr. Richard S. Ostfeld, an expert on Lyme disease.
“There are industries, the landscaping industry in particular, that are very concerned about Lyme and they are impacted by it psychologically and economically,” he said.
Ostfeld has been asked to talk to landscaping workers about different levels of risk they face in regards to Lyme.
“The expense these companies [have from] bringing in speakers and having conventions focused on tick-borne disease is palpable,” he said. “That’s a real impact.”
Lack of regional concern
Nevertheless, there are people in the area that don’t think about the effects of Lyme disease before going outdoors. Indeed, on the Ulster County Health Department’s website page on current issues, Lyme disease is only briefly mentioned, well below information about obesity and flu shots.
Zalewski said that people he knows in less Lyme-prone areas are more concerned than people in New York.
“It’s funny, I have a cousin who lives in Florida where there’s really no Lyme disease and she wouldn’t let her kids walk across a 10-foot patch of grass,” he said. “We were going from one parking lot to another and they had to walk this long way, and they were completely freaked out about it.”
Lawrence Ferretti is an Eagle Scout, Assistant Boy Scoutmaster and an avid hiker and camper as part of the Leave No Trace Society. He said people tend to get Lyme when they decide not to check or prepare for ticks.
Ferretti was diagnosed with Lyme twice in his life.
“For me when I got it, I was not paying attention. I was wearing shorts and low ankle socks and I rolled down a hill where it’s commonly populated with deer. That’s when I picked up a tick and got it.”
“When people think there isn’t anything to worry about is probably the time they’re going to get it,” he said.