Bedbug calls may be down during COVID-19, but just wait
Though bedbugs aren’t spreading as rapidly as they did before COVID-19 restrictions were imposed, infestations remain a grim reality for many Toronto residents.
Toronto Public Health (TPH) and pest control companies have noticed fewer bedbug sighting calls in the past year as people leave their homes less frequently during the pandemic, slowing the spread of insect across the city.
The tiny, bloodthirsty pests are hitchhikers, jumping from one person’s clothes and belongings to the next. But “when we have these lockdowns and people are just staying at home and not moving, it restricts the travel of bedbugs because bedbugs don’t move on their own,” said Dale Kurt, the GTA regional manager for pest control company Orkin.
Last year, TPH received 799 complaints, requests and inquiries about bedbugs, according to spokesperson Tracy Leach. That’s almost 470 fewer calls compared to the previous year: in 2019, Leach said TPH received 1,267 bedbug-related queries.
Orkin has also noticed a 20 per cent drop in calls across Canada in 2020. Similarly, ACORN, a community union for low- and moderate-income people, found that the number of Toronto members who saw bedbugs in their home last year is nearly half of the previous year’s number.
Unlike the city, Orkin and ACORN, Toronto Community Housing hasn’t seen a significant decrease in bedbug sightings.
Its “portfolio of about 60,000 apartments and townhome units have remained stable during the pandemic,” a spokesperson said. “While we’ve carefully treated cases as they arise, we have had to pause preventative programs during the pandemic for everyone’s safety.”
Although people aren’t spreading bedbugs at pre-COVID-19 rates, many Torontonians are still dealing with infestations at home. And once public spaces start opening again, it’s possible that there will be a spike in bedbug sightings — especially when people go to establishments that have been closed for a long time, like offices and movie theatres.
“Bedbugs live for a long time without a blood meal,” Kurt said. Orkin’s website says the insects can live as long as year without a meal. “When we get back into some of those places, bedbugs will be there and they’re going to be hungry.”
Kurt also said that residential calls from last year were more frequent than usual. “With people staying at home, their threshold level for allowing insects in their home is a lot less,” he said. “Whether it’s a bedbug, a cockroach or an ant, they don’t want to see them there.”
The most awful thing about bedbugs is the emotional distress they cause. For many people, just the thought of tiny bugs crawling on their bodies and feeding off their blood can be traumatizing.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of customers where they’re literally in tears and want something done right away,” Kurt said.
Bedbugs have been an issue in the city for many years. Between 2007 and 2015, former Star columnist Joe Fiorito wrote extensively about people in the city dealing with infestations, including one woman who witnessed bedbugs get “blown out” of her apartment building during a fire in 2008.
The city and pest control companies may be receiving fewer calls simply because people aren’t aware that they can hire an exterminator during COVID-19. Luqman Butter, a manager at Pestend pest control, said that a few of their callers weren’t even sure if they were operating during the pandemic.
“People always ask us if we are still open for business and we tell them, ‘Yes, pest control is essential and we are working as usual,’” Butter said. “There could be a percentage of people, they may not even bother to call, thinking they may not be able to seek any help during this lockdown.”
This kind of ignorance could be preventing people from living comfortably, especially amidst stay-at-home orders.
Ria Rinne, co-chair of ACORN’s Etobicoke chapter, dealt with a bedbug infestation when she lived in Ottawa. It was a source of anxiety for her and her roommate at the time, but they were able to have the bedbugs exterminated with the help of their landlord and support networks.
“My biggest fear during this pandemic is landlords taking a laissez-faire, hands-off approach and using the pandemic as an excuse to not take care of pest management problems,” Rinne said.
Rinne hopes that the city will adopt ACORN’s request to have residential buildings put up colour-coded signs that warn current and prospective tenants of the building’s pest situation, like those used at restaurants.
For now, she advises renters to speak up to their landlords if they see bedbugs or any other pests in their home.
“Don’t be afraid to tell your landlord — you have every right to live in a safe and comfortable home,” Rinne said.