December 29, 2011
The Toronto Star
Niamh Scallan Staff Reporter
All this week, the Star is catching up with some of the fascinating people covered in the GTA section this year. Today: Toronto’s new bedbug nurses, whose hiring was a matter of political debate in August.
He enters with only a pen and paper in hand. Inside, Jason Bass-Meldrum takes off his shoes at the door but never sits down. He avoids furniture and never stops moving. On his way out, he shakes his shoes, checking them inside and out, before he moves on.
It’s a military-style routine the 34-year-old hopes will prevent his work from following him home.
One of three dedicated bedbug nurses in Toronto, Bass-Meldrum is on the front line of the city’s battle against the pests.
Most days, he travels across the city to help tormented residents — most of them isolated from the community because of mental and physical health issues or addiction problems — whose “day-to-day life has become a living hell.”
It’s the latest tactic in Toronto’s war on pestilence — a bedbug team of six public health inspectors and three nurses charged with tracking down infested homes and providing education, outreach and health assessments to people whose homes have been overrun by the pests. The team also connects clients with landlords, who are responsible for extermination.
In August, Toronto city council approved using $255,000 in provincial funds to cover the salaries of Bass-Meldrum and two other public health nurses, who started working June 1, to intervene in serious infestation cases.
Coupled with $1.2 million in one-time provincial funds, the money has been used to conduct 2,612 unit inspections as a result of public-health investigations and 49 “extreme-cleaning” operations between May 1 and Sept. 30, according to a Toronto Public Health report to the ministry.
Despite those efforts, infestation rates have continued to rise.
“We need more help,” Bass-Meldrum said.
Before he enlisted in Toronto’s bedbug war, Bass-Meldrum worked at a downtown men’s shelter and with the vulnerable seniors’ population. He saw the bedbug project as an opportunity to continue working with similar issues, he said.
“I don’t like bedbugs at all,” he said with a sheepish grin. “But I like working with vulnerable clients.”
In a typical week, public-health inspectors assess homes they suspect are infested. If they find a vulnerable resident, one of the nurses is called to the scene. Each nurse handles between three and four homes each week.
“Once we get in there, our most successful work is done when we build a relationship,” said Bass-Meldrum. He rarely wears a white haz-mat suit and booties when he goes into an infested apartment, opting for plain clothes to keep people at ease.
Inside the house, he helps residents strip down their beds, toss away clutter and infested furniture, and connect them with outside support services.
He’s even showered some clients to prevent bugs from spreading.
“I have the bad dreams occasionally,” Bass-Meldrum said. “I’d be lying if I said I never woke up thinking about bedbugs.”
The physical health effects of infestations are well documented: itchy, uncomfortable bites that sometimes lead to painful open sores and rashes.
But there’s also a terrible psychological toll, as Bass-Meldrum has seen first-hand over the past six months.
“People are falling into a depression. They can’t sleep, they miss work, they start to cut themselves off from family because of the stigma, and they don’t want to spread the bugs,” he says. “It becomes this vicious cycle of anxiety and depression.”
Often, people who are already vulnerable find their problems compounded by bedbug anxiety, Bass-Meldrum added.
One example is an elderly man, living alone in east Toronto, who — embarrassed by bedbugs — began throwing away his belongings in an alleyway at night. He developed open sores on his legs from the bites and, as he became more and more withdrawn, cut off his meal-service program.
The man was driven to despair trying to cope with the infestation alone, Bass-Meldrum said. The nurse intervened and helped him relocate and reconnect with the supports he’d abandoned.
“We’re not really talking about treating bedbugs . . . you can’t really treat the bedbugs until you deal with the person’s issues,” said Allie Lehmann, Toronto Public Health’s health communities manager. “Bedbugs, in many cases, are a symptom of an underlying problem.”
That position — focusing efforts on vulnerable people with infestations as a way to reduce overall infestations — garnered skepticism at city hall last summer.
“We want to fix the problem as quickly as possible, not create a permanent industry of civil servants to study the problem,” Councillor Doug Ford said during a budget committee meeting in August, according to the National Post.
In late November, Toronto Public Health reported its progress to the province in an effort to secure funding past next March. With future funds hinging on whether the bedbug team has made progress in battling infestations in 2011, their future is less than clear.
“Is there a decrease in infestations? Absolutely not,” said Tracy Leach, leader of the bedbug squad.
“There’s been an increase,” Lehmann added.
But Leach said the team has made giant strides in helping people on a case-by-case basis, and those individual triumphs will eventually see a decrease in infestations in the long run.
Whether the province and city will continue to shell out money for the cause remains unknown.
Bass-Meldrum hinted at the pressure he and other bedbug team members have felt in keeping up with the city-wide problem. “There’s so much need,” he said. “You could double the number of bodies on our team and there would still be a so-called waiting list.”
“I’m not here to perpetuate paranoia,” he added. “But I think the biggest misconception is that bedbugs are not a problem. It is a problem — and it’s becoming more of a problem.”