For the last seven years, Pennsylvania has led the nation in confirmed cases of Lyme disease.
There were 12,000 new cases alone in 2016, and the black-legged tick that transmits the disease continues to thrive.
But Michele Cassetori, director of education and outreach with PA Lyme Resource Network and the area coordinator, doesn’t want people to shelter inside their homes during the summer.
Cassetori, whose own daughter deals with the symptoms of Lyme disease after being bitten by a tick four years ago, believes awareness and prevention are the best ways to protect against the illness — and not staying inside.
No matter what the numbers say.
“I don’t want people to get scared as they hear about the increasing number of ticks and illnesses,” Cassetori said. “Don’t give up your outdoor activity.”
“The answer is to get educated, empowered and practice prevention,” she added.
One way to accomplish all that, according to Cassetori, is the Dare 2B Tick Aware program, which was designed by the PA Lyme Resource Network and is funded by the state Department of Health. The program includes seminars throughout the state, webinars and public service announcements on prevention.
And it all ties into awareness, an element that Cassetori was boosted locally when Luzerne County Council issued a proclamation naming May as Lyme Disease Awareness Month.
“The proclamation is a real sign of support from council to promote Lyme disease awareness,” Cassetori said. “The more we hear about increasing Lyme disease cases, the more we need to emphasize education so we don’t react by running indoors.
“Become educated and enjoy your life like you always have.”
For some, hiding indoors to avoid the risk of Lyme disease isn’t an option no matter the risk.
Terry Brady, spokesman for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said many of his agency’s employees spend their working hours outdoors and ticks are a constant threat.
That’s why DCNR presents mandatory training sessions to its employees on prevention of Lyme disease, according to Brady, in addition to taking steps warning the public about the threat.
“It’s really tough, especially in the northeast and southeast regions. Most of our foresters either had the disease or know someone who did,” Brady said.
The awareness campaign has resulted in some preventative measures among DCNR employees. In addition to tucking in pant legs and using insecticide, Brady said many DCNR staff wear gaiters over their lower legs, which not only shield their pants but are treated with a tick repellent as well.
Still, ticks and the threat of Lyme disease has placed DCNR in a precarious position.
On one hand, the agency encourages the public to get outdoors and visit state forests and parks. And at the same time, DCNR also warns visitors about the risk of Lyme disease and even erects posters in some areas advising hikers to stay on trails and avoid trekking into the forest undergrowth.
“It’s a tough sell. We’re trying to get people more involved in the outdoors but there are ticks out there and you don’t want to scare people away,” Brady said. “Our rangers have taken on a new initiative to educate people about this. We’re heavy on awareness.”
While the tick population and the number of Lyme disease cases in the state continues to grow, Cassetori believes the message of prevention is reaching more people as well.
Her Lyme disease awareness programs conducted monthly at Misericordia University always attract an audience, and Cassetori also speaks to an average of two local groups each month on the issue.
While she doesn’t want to instill fear, Cassetori doesn’t hide the numbers, either.
There were nearly 800 confirmed cases in Luzerne County in 2016, and the northeast region accounted for 11 percent of reported cases that year, trailing the southeast at 26 percent, according to Cassetori.
“The truth is, there are very good outcomes when it comes to early treatment of the disease and prevention does work,” she said. “Spray your shoes with permethrin and pair that with a repellent on exposed skin and I’m feeling pretty confident outside.”
Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky