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Caution on outdoor activities continues due to disease-carrying mosquitoes

Sports events in the public schools and at the University of Massachusetts have been rescheduled this month because of concern over exposure to disease-carrying mosquitoes after dusk.

Amherst is considered at high risk for Eastern equine encephalitis because it borders Belchertown, where a horse tested positive for EEE, said Julie Federman, the town's health director.

"It's very, very concerning, and we can't urge people enough to protect themselves from mosquito bites," she said. "The best protection is self-protection, wearing long sleeves, using repellents and avoiding outdoor physical activity from dusk to dawn."

The state defines dusk now as 6:45 p.m. and dawn as 6 a.m., she said.

Residents should not be afraid to go out to restaurants or movies after dusk if they are wearing long sleeves, Federman said, but athletic activity and gardening are more risky. Mosquitoes are attracted to the sweat and lactic acid that people produce when they move around, she said.

"It's particularly important during athletic activities after dusk to bring people indoors," she said. "It's also not a good idea to be hauling around your compost after dusk."

On Sept. 12, Superintendent of Schools Maria Geryk announced that all activities scheduled to end after 6:30 p.m. are being rescheduled or canceled.

"Our first priority is always the safety and well-being of our students," she said in a statement. "We should minimize risk by either postponing after-dusk outdoor activities or moving them indoors. Families and students have been very understanding and supportive of this decision."

The ARHS athletic director, Richard Ferro, said that soccer and field hockey games have been rescheduled to afternoon time slots. As of the Bulletin's deadline Wednesday, he was working on changing the date of the away football game scheduled for Holyoke on Sept. 28, probably to Sept. 29, he said. Holyoke is also in the high-risk category for disease-carrying mosquitoes because it borders Chicopee, which the state has said is at critical risk for EEE.

"We will re-evaluate this the last week of September and hope for a frost," Ferro said.

The changes will have an impact on the athletic department's finances, because it will have to get buses from a private contractor and will be unable to charge admission fees, he said.

Some Leisure Services activities, especially youth football, will be affected by the need to get youths inside by dusk, said Mark Miville, the sports and recreation director.

Youth football, which involves 80 boys, has moved its Tuesday and Thursday practices to 5 p.m. from 5:15 p.m. and they will now have to end by 6:45 p.m., Miville said. The teams have lengthened their Saturday practices, he said.

"This is a challenge for coaches, most of whom are parents and work out of town," Miville said.

Leisure Services is recommending that evening youth soccer and baseball programs, which use town fields but are independent, end by 6:45 p.m., he said. The same goes for a Monday-evening adult pickup soccer league, he said.

Hadley public schools announced last week that they are rescheduling or canceling all after-dusk sports and activities, both home and away, for the remainder of the fall season. Practices must end by 6 p.m. and all athletes, parents and coaches must be off the fields by 6:15 p.m., according to the school district's website.

Don Robinson, director of environmental health and safety at the University of Massachusetts, convened a meeting of about 20 people from across the campus Sept. 12. The group decided to follow the state Department of Public Health's recommendations and cancel evening outdoor events, despite the fact that the nearest case of EEE was in Belchertown, he said.

"Mosquitoes don't necessarily follow town boundaries," he said. "This is their best effort to identify the towns that should take additional precautions."

The problem is not so much that there's a high risk of contracting EEE from a mosquito, but that the consequences of getting the disease are so serious, Robinson said. There have been 97 confirmed cases in Massachusetts since 1938, with 52 of them resulting in death and others causing significant neurological problems, he said.

As of Tuesday, the state Department of Public Health had confirmed five EEE cases in Massachusetts this year.

"This is a precautionary measure," Robinson said. "The medical director at Health Services and myself are in full agreement that this is the prudent step to take."

At the University of Massachusetts, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy sent out an email Sept. 12 recommending that all outdoor evening campus events be canceled until the risk subsides. He also wrote that the UMass grounds staff is applying larvacide to areas of standing water to prevent mosquito breeding.

"While this step may be an inconvenience for some groups or departments, it is important that we safeguard the health of our community," Subbaswamy wrote.

The precautions affect sports clubs, many of which have evening practices on the fields near the UMass Stadium. "That's prime mosquito territory because it's wet," said campus spokesman Daniel Fitzgibbons.

"We're advising individual members of the community to use prudent, common-sense precautions, and try not to be outside, use repellent and wear long pants," Fitzgibbons said. "But if they're doing it on their own, we won't be like the health police and chase people off the fields."

The UMass Athletic Department and Health Services are providing insect repellent to students, he said.

Fitzgibbons said Tuesday that the restrictions on activities after dusk are still in effect and there have been few problems getting compliance from students.

"People seem to understand the issue," he said. "It hasn't hurt that the town and Amherst College did something similar. People see it as part of a broader problem."

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