Bed Bug Infestations Not Uncommon at Middle Georgia Hotels, Apartments

Macon.com
Saturday, April 21, 2012

When Vinnie Orene Fennell got her first bedbug bite, she thought it was a mosquito bite. She didn't think much of it.

Over the course of the next few days, she noticed more red spots on her arms but assumed it was some kind of light rash. Then one night she saw a little bug crawling on her bed at the Rodeway Inn on Eisenhower Parkway, where the Mobile, Ala., resident was staying while dealing with a legal matter in Macon.

"I went to flick it off and that thing burst and there was just a good quarter(-sized) area of blood, and I about fainted," Fennell said.

She slept in the other bed that night, but when she checked herself the next morning she realized she had so many bites over her left side, she appeared to have measles. Finally it struck her: She had been a meal for bedbugs.

"It took a few minutes for me to wrap my mind around that sudden realization," the 72-year-old Fennell wrote in a letter to the hotel chain. "Seriously, it was like someone telling me that people had been discovered on Mars. It was just that alien to me."

Fennell is not the only visitor to Middle Georgia to encounter these blood suckers of yesteryear.

The 13 counties that make up the North Central Health District have had 38 verified bedbug complaints since the beginning of 2011, said Carla Coley, the district environmental health director.

Statewide, there were 132 verified complaints within the same period, but the true statewide number is almost certainly higher because of the way the records were searched and because they include only the 131 counties that use the same reporting system, Coley said.

Plus, the majority of bedbug infestations probably aren't reported, Coley said.

"For every one where the public calls us, there are going to be five to 10 we're not going to get," she said.

As an example, a single pest control company, Knox Pest Control, has treated 20 to 40 bedbug infestations a year across Middle Georgia during the last couple of years, said John Lindhorst, district manager for the Macon location.

Coley said the majority of bedbug cases in the district have happened in Houston, Bibb and Baldwin counties.

The bugs seem to have arrived first in Houston County. "We began getting complaints there pretty heavily about three years ago, first in apartment complexes, then in hotels two years ago," Coley said.

Sharon Pettit, environmental health specialist for Houston County, said the first case there was at the Swan Motel in Perry. A few Houston apartment complexes have also had bedbug problems since then, including one with numerous apartments, she said.

Pettit estimated her department investigates around 15 bedbug complaints a year, not all confirmed.

Only one confirmed Houston case has happened in the last six months, according to Health Department records. That was at Days Inn & Suites on Margie Drive. (The hotel guest who complained had 13 bites, but he praised management's handling of the situation, and when health department officials arrived, the hotel had already broken down the furniture and called a pest control company to treat the room.)

Five bedbug complaints have been verified as legitimate by the Bibb County Health Department so far this year, said James Boecke, co-manager of environmental health for the Bibb County Health Department.

Health department documents show that besides Fennell's Rodeway complaint, others were at the Macon Inn on Riverside Drive, Value Place on Harrison Road, Motel 6 on Riverside Drive, and Howard Johnson Inn on Cavalier Drive. The latter two are still in the process of treating the bedbugs. The rest have finished treatment and been cleared to rent rooms again, documents show.

Milledgeville had its first spate of bedbug problems in hotels last August and September, mostly due to a large volume of construction workers packing hotels as they worked on local projects, said Claire Edmonds, environmental health specialist in the Baldwin County Health Department. She said there were three or four confirmed cases at that time.

Edmonds also investigated a complaint in the last six months of bedbugs in toys at the local fair, but she found no evidence of the pests.

Bibb County Cooperative Extension has also advised some apartment residents on dealing with bedbugs in recent years, said Jan Baggarly, Bibb family and consumer sciences agent. She said UGA experts identified a bedbug specimen for an apartment resident last week.

Don't let 'em bite

Although bedbugs are blood-feeders, they don't carry any known diseases, Coley said.

They are a public health nuisance rather than a public health threat, she said. But their bites are itchy, and some people are allergic to their saliva, which can leave welts.

Bedbugs are much harder to get rid of than roaches and other pests. They hide well, they can remain dormant without a meal for more than a year, and they aren't harmed by many of the chemicals that kill roaches and other pests through ingestion.

"There is nothing at Home Depot, Lowe's or Wal-Mart that will treat for bedbugs, no matter what the package says," Pettit warned.

Like many people, Fennell thought of bedbugs as a pest of the past -- or something found only in very dirty places. But expensive airport hotels have been hard hit by the hitchhikers, which have arrived from distant countries as the world's population becomes ever more mobile.

John Lindhorst, Macon district manager for Knox Pest Control, said bedbugs were mostly eliminated in the United States in the 1930s using harsh chemicals like DDT that are no longer legal. But in recent years travelers from countries that never eradicated the bugs have brought them back.

"I don't envy a facility that gets them," Coley said. "Very high-end facilities have had issues with bedbugs. It doesn't have to do with whether the facility is clean or not."

Housekeeping workers who vacuum well under beds can help catch a bedbug problem before it worsens, Coley said, but she noted that the bugs can also hide in places that aren't normally cleaned, such as underneath a headboard where it is attached to the wall.

Donna Cadwell, co-manager of environmental health for the Bibb County Health Department, said Georgia tourist accommodation rules and regulations put local health departments in charge of monitoring bedbug complaints at hotels.

In Bibb, a health department inspector checks for signs of bedbugs, including staining from blood or feces around the edges of the mattress or the shed exoskeletons of the bugs. In Houston County, the health department requires the hotel owner to hire a licensed pest control company to check for them.

Generally they must look for the bugs in the room that generated the complaint, plus any other rental room that shares a wall, floor or ceiling. If bedbugs are found, the hotel owner cannot rent the rooms out until they have been successfully treated by a licensed pest control company. Often this takes more than one treatment, Cadwell said.

There are two major types of treatment for bedbugs, said Lindhorst. One involves superheating a mattress or a whole room, which kills the bugs. Health department officials and pest control operators say they don't know of anyone providing this type of treatment in Middle Georgia.

The more common approach here is to treat the bugs with a barrage of chemicals. Knox Pest Control generally does a seven-day treatment that includes five different treatment methods including fogging, chemical sprays, drilling holes in the walls to get chemical powder inside, and aerators that release a legal form of DDT.

Public health documents show treatment usually takes at least a month.

Cadwell said if hotel operators do not cooperate, the health department can ultimately have their operating permit revoked. But generally, hotel owners are highly motivated to rent rooms, and the prospect of losing income is enough to assure compliance, health department officials said.

What about apartments?

Individual health departments handle apartment calls differently. In Bibb County, many of those are referred to the Economic and Community Development Department, Cadwell said.

In Houston County, the county calls the apartment owner to notify him or her about the complaint and offer advice about how to get rid of the bugs. But health departments don't have authority to force apartment owners to treat bedbug infestations. Some claim it's the tenant's responsibility.

The problem with that, Coley said, is that vermin move through walls to surrounding apartments.

The Houston County Health Department worked with county employees, pest control companies and the Georgia Department of Agriculture to develop an ordinance that would make pest control the responsibility of apartment owners or managers, Coley said.

It would be the first of its kind in the state. But the Houston County Commission hasn't yet considered the measure.

Edmonds said Baldwin County had three bedbug complaints related to apartments in the last six months.

The growing incidence of the problem led Edmonds to hold a one-day conference on bedbug management in February, attended by about 75 people, including pest control companies, nursing homes, local colleges, Central State Prison, and the Macon Housing Authority, she said.

She also invited officials from local schools and day cares, which she said could become "depots" for bedbugs moving from one place to another.

Edmonds said she hopes what these professionals learned about identifying, treating, and limiting the spread of bedbugs could help Middle Georgia tenants and travelers in the future.