The bedbug problem continues at the state Department of Economic Security office in Surprise, which just reopened on Monday after a 10-day closure to treat the outbreak.
The Surprise office initially closed following Phoenix New Times reporting that developmental disability caseworkers feared the agency was not taking necessary measures to treat the bedbugs, and had begun to cancel appointments to avoid spreading the insects to clients.
Employees who arrived to the newly cleaned office this week discovered newfound live bugs on their cubicle chairs as early as Tuesday, according to staff accounts and emails obtained by New Times. The renewed sightings come as the state's largest agency moves to find a comprehensive solution to the ongoing bedbug problem.
Did Workers Spread Bugs to Homes?
On Monday, Arizona Department of Health Services spokesperson Chris Minnick said the agency and the DES would be meeting the following day to discuss the findings of DES' investigation of a reported outbreak at the Cholla office, and would develop a cross-agency plan of action to combat bedbugs in their offices.
The ADHS spokespeople did not respond to New Times' calls or emailed questions about their findings, or the plan they decided on to address the ongoing bedbug issue on Tuesday. They did not follow up on Wednesday.
But on Thursday, New Times received a call from yet another frustrated Surprise employee who said staff began finding live bedbugs on their chairs and cubicles just the day after the office reopened. (This employee, as with others with whom New Times has spoken on the issue, requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation.)
Tasya Peterson, spokesperson for DES, confirmed that the agency had found three bedbugs at the Surprise office.
But an email sent by office management on October 2 and obtained by New Times stated that, "There are approximately 15 staffers who could be affected by a detection." Those 15 employees have been given the option to work remotely. The anonymous caseworker who called said that for the rest of the employees, it's "business as usual." She still wasn't sure if all Surprise staff had been notified of the newly discovered bugs.
"Although the affected area is very small, we are taking precautions and have informed staff that they may request alternative work options with their supervisor," Peterson said in an emailed statement. She added that DES is offering pest control services for "the homes of staff who have been personally affected," suggesting the problem may have spread outside the office.
Hard to Kill
Shaku Nair, an entomologist with a Ph.D. who specializes in integrated pest management at the Arizona Pest Management Center of the University of Arizona, said it’s normal to continue to find bedbugs after a full treatment.
“You cannot get all bedbugs in one treatment," she said. "You just cannot.”
What’s most important is what the office does next.
“Treatments don’t always kill the eggs of the bedbugs, which are really tiny and hard to see,” Nair said. “So a repeat treatment would have to be done in about 10 days, because these eggs will hatch in that time.” Even if more bedbugs had not been found, she added, this is standard practice the DES should have been prepared to implement.
Nair suggested methods of mitigating the risk of bedbugs. The nature of DES caseworkers’ jobs requires they visit up to 40 clients a month. In reality, recent reports from employees, developmental disability advocates, and a pending lawsuit suggest caseworkers are actually visiting anywhere from 80 to 120 clients in that time period, often in their homes.
Because bedbugs can happen to anyone, at any time, Nair said the DES should establish permanent, long-term policies specifically geared toward recognizing and combating bedbugs early on.
In other words, the DES needs a bedbug protocol. Nair noted that it would be better if DES employees could engage in a series of preventative measures when visiting client homes, like wearing white or light-colored clothing that makes it easy to spot the insects, wrapping shoes in plastic before entering, bringing as little material as possible into the home, and inspecting clothes and shoes for bugs and eggs upon leaving.
But she said that it’s just as critical for the DES to adopt a way of monitoring for bedbugs as an institution as it is for them to request that their employees “be careful.”
Nair said that usually, when treating bedbugs in a home, hospital, or school setting, she would advise checking each person before they enter the space.
But when dealing with an office space where a lot of people going in and out throughout the day, that’s impossible.
“So monitoring should be continued on a regular basis,” she said. “That’s the most important thing.”
Monitoring traps are cheap and relatively discreet, easy to hide under desk spaces and furniture. But they’re valuable because they can detect red flags of bedbugs even before a person can easily see them. It would be best if they were a constant in DES offices, Nair said, and were checked weekly for warning signs.
She added that if possible, the DES should try each month to check offices with bedbug-sniffing dogs, like the ones they used to check Surprise cubicles after becoming aware of an outbreak, though she noted that this was a much more expensive preventive measure.
And lastly, there should be a policy around training staff about bedbugs, not just once they’re in the office, but beforehand.
“Send out a little bit of information about what they're looking at: You need to be aware of this, and this is how it is," Nair said. "If you see something like that, let us know and we’ll take some action. Provide that kind of education for people who visit the office and also employees.”
And once bedbugs are spotted, make it standard practice to inform everyone, not just employees whose areas are affected.
“Yes, bedbugs are bad — they're a nightmare," Nair said. "But it doesn't help if you're ignorant about them. I’m all in favor of educating people.”
Peterson of the DES confirmed on Thursday that the agency is working with the ADHS to create "an extensive, sustainable plan."
The plan includes: bringing back an ADHS epidemiologist and registered sanitarian who conducted a previous visit to the Surprise office; engaging with a bedbug expert from the University of Arizona; developing an eradication plan for the office and a preventive plan for all other facilities; developing tool kits for employees on bed bug prevention; and strengthening policies and training to ensure consistency throughout the department.