Residents of a senior housing complex say a bedbug infestation spread to a number of apartments in their building and they question whether the building's management took the appropriate steps to control the outbreak.
But local pest control providers say the situation at Mercy Village, 1148 W. 28th St., is an example of an explosive increase that is being seen in local cases and the difficulties that can be encountered in trying to eradicate the pests.
And while officials with the owner of the complex and the Joplin Health Department believe the problem is close to being resolved, some residents remain skeptical, saying that they do not believe that all of the steps necessary to kill all of the bugs have been taken.
About 20 of the retirees who live in the 65 apartments at the building appeared at a Nov. 7 meeting of the Joplin City Council. They asked through a designated spokeswoman, resident Jane Bryson, that the city monitor the situation and assign the Joplin Health Department to oversee treatment measures.
There had been 10 cases of the pests reported since June, Bryson said. It isn't the first time a case of bedbugs was found in the building, but it's the first one that has spread to more than one unit, she said.
One apartment became infested several years ago, but "it was handled perfectly, just perfectly," Bryson said. "And it was contained. And it was a bad one. It was an extreme case, but it was contained. But both apartments on either side and the one above were treated" simultaneously as a precaution.
About 1 1/2 years later there was another incident. "It was handled in the same way," Bryson said, and it, too, was contained.
Last June, residents learned through the grapevine of another case. Bryson said residents were never officially informed so they could take preventive action. "It has been very hush-hush. And that, in itself, is a problem because keeping quiet helps the infestation spread," Bryson said.
Mercy Housing, which owns the complex, has policies in place to deal with those situations and followed them, said Kate Peterson, national director of marketing and communications for Mercy Housing.
"Our residents and their well-being is taken very seriously," she said. "Since we became aware of the outbreak, we have been treating the affected apartments as well as the adjacent apartments using a licensed pest control company."
Peterson said that the pest control company has told Mercy Housing "there are no signs of bedbugs at this time and that we can consider those apartments bedbug free."
Ryan Talken, assistant director and environmental coordinator of the Joplin Health Department, met with Mercy Housing officials on Thursday as a result of the residents' request for city involvement.
"From what I've seen from the plan and from what I've seen from the reports from the pest control company, the number of those being treated is reducing," Talken said. "The apartments where the bugs were found have been sprayed multiple times. Rooms are cleared. It appears to me they've got a handle on it."
Peterson said there are several steps involved to treat an outbreak. In each case, pest control chemicals are applied in repeated treatments.
"We do have policy and procedure to expedite the treatment process," to eradicate the bugs as quickly as possible. "We encourage residents to follow the instructions and certainly report any bedbug infestation to management," Peterson said. "We have both our policy and our instructions from the exterminator to follow and at this time it is under control."
The final infected apartment is in the last stages of treatment, but inspectors report that no bugs have been found recently, leading to the conclusion that the infestation has been resolved, both Peterson and Talken said.
Bryson does not agree with that assessment, nor does she and her fellow residents believe that Mercy Housing took swift enough action in previous months to prevent the spread. She said that some of the residents lack the mobility and the endurance to carry out the prescribed steps on their own but were left to do that.
Two local pest control providers said the situation at Mercy Village is not unusual.
"We're beginning to have more calls for bedbugs. We are touching the tip of the iceberg right now," said Doug Hansen, owner of Bug-A-Way Pest Control. "Eleven years ago, we had five to eight calls a year. Now, there will be days now when we have five to eight calls a day" for help fighting off the pests.
"Our bedbug cases have tripled over the last year," said Gary McVay, owner of McVay Affordable Pest Control. He said the spread is occurring because it's easy for the bugs, or their eggs, to get on a person's clothing, person or possessions, and get carried home or to another place.
McVay says the treatment industry's chemical sprays are frequently being updated as the bugs become more resistant but that there is a new spray that is effective if residents and property owners carry out their work to set the stage for the use of the sprays.
Hansen said there also is whole-house heat treatment if chemicals do not eradicate the bugs.
Regina Bullen, a retired schoolteacher and retail manager who lives at Mercy Village, said the preparation process is extensive and can be costly for people with limited income.
Bullen said that initially all bedding has to be washed and bagged, beds have to be taken apart and mattresses and box springs have to be stood up against the walls.
"All linens have to be heat-treated," she said."They don't have to be washed but they have to be put through the dryer. All your linens and clothes have to be heat-treated by cycles in clothes dryers. And then we have bedbugs in the laundry rooms, which is a problem."
Clothes have to be bagged in dark bags and sealed with packing tape and tied up the bottoms. Pictures and other decorative items have to be vacuumed, and boxed or bagged. Bags of clothing and boxes of personal items have to be moved out of the apartment. She rented a storage unit.
"I think I have spent over $300 so far and my budget can't take that," Bullen said. "I know I spent the first day $140 on bags and totes. They (the bugs) can't get in these totes that the lids snap on." Everything has to be packed away "and that takes a lot out of the body as old as mine."
Another Mercy Village resident, Linda Hopper, said all picture frames have to be vacuumed in case there are any bugs in the crevices before they are packed up.
And then the chemical pest control treatment starts. "And I can tell you it's really a serious treatment. My couch was wet for 10 or 12 hours," Bullen said.
Two weeks later, the carpets are saturated with the pest control chemical. There are three treatments.
McVay said that is where some pest control technicians run into difficulty trying to squelch an outbreak. He said some people won't go to the work of taking those initial steps to prepare for the chemical treatments.
"I tell people it's me and you working together to get rid of the problem," he said. "I can't just do it on my own. It's a team effort," no matter whether it's bedbugs, roaches, ants or some other pest.
Bryson said some residents at Mercy Village who had recently been ill or have mobility problems could not do all the work to get ready for the treatments. She questioned why help was not provided to those residents.
Said Peterson: "Mercy Village Joplin is an affordable apartment community for independent seniors 62 years and older. We are not an assisted living community. Should a resident ask for assistance, our services staff will provide organizations or vendors who might help if residents are unable to complete the preparation themselves."
McVay said exterminators do run into those situations where a resident cannot do the work. They try to get family members or nonprofit assistance to help, and they try to pitch in when they can.
Some of the Mercy Village residents also believe the management should have notified tenants about the cases.
Peterson said Mercy Housing has to respect the privacy of the residents.
"One of our core values is respect, and we take that very seriously," she said. "That coupled with our residents well-being is our first priority. We have a procedure in place and we think we took the steps that were appropriate, and we think the situation has been resolved."
Talken said the situation at Mercy Village will continue to be monitored and residents can call the health department if they have any concerns.
"We have not received any new complaints the last few days," he said. "That's a good sign as well."
Bedbugs are not uncommon, according to Ryan Talken of the Joplin Health Department and local pest control operators.
Talken said they can be found in places where people interact or where there are many people staying, such as hotels and motels, apartment buildings and public areas.
While they can bite and cause irritation, bedbugs do not pose any long-term health risks. "Bed bugs are not known to carry any diseases," Talken said.
Pest service owners Gary McVay and Doug Hansen said that paying close attention to detect the bugs early can help reduce the seriousness.
McVay said those who find bedbugs should cooperate fully with the instructions of a pest controller so that chemical treatments can be performed and be effective.
They also recommend:
• When buying anything used, including furniture and clothing, look over the items and make sure you see no bugs.
• Always look over beds in hotel and motel rooms and check your own beds at home. Look in the seams of the mattresses and in the cracks and crevices of headboards for the little, red bugs or black residue. Check the mattress and bedding for red or brown spotting. Keep luggage and other items away from the bed where the bugs could move to them.
• If bugs are found in the home, remove any clutter in the room and vacuum cracks and crevices and furnishings. Be vigilant about vacuuming often. Heat-treat clothing and linens on a hot cycle in the clothes dryer for an hour.
• Buy diatomaceous earth at hardware stores and sprinkle it along the bottom of the walls to kill a small number of bugs. If there is a larger infestation, call a pest control company. Spray the bugs with rubbing alcohol.