Alison Schrag is not normally one to panic, but when she found a tick on her 6-year-old son last month at their vacation home upstate, her mom instincts kicked in.
Ecologists at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in the Hudson Valley say tick populations are slated to be the highest in years due to a wet winter two years ago, which offered ample acorns for the Lyme-disease-carrying mice that ticks feed on.
Meanwhile, the lone star tick, which can cause a severe meat allergy, has spread from its native Southeast habitat, moving up through the East Coast and even touching New England. In the last year, more than 100 cases of the allergy were reported in the Hamptons.
What has outdoor types most nervous, though, is Powassan, a deadly virus transmitted by ticks that can lead to death or permanent disability in 60 percent of cases. The virus can infect the central nervous system and cause encephalitis or meningitis, and symptoms include fever, disorientation, headache, vomiting and seizures. There are no vaccines or medications to treat or prevent it.
Powassan is rare, but the severity of the virus has parents like Schrag more worried than excited for summer vacation this year.
"After finding those ticks, we've been hypervigilant — neither of my kids are allowed to leave without a hat, they need to wear pants all the time and there is a full head-to-toe inspection during bath time," says the 37-year-old Harlem-based attorney, who has another son who is 2. "I'm trying not to stress about it, but it is on my mind."
Schrag worries most when she reads news about young children like hers getting the virus — in April, she saw that a 5-month-old baby from Connecticut suffered a high fever and a seizure after contracting Powassan. Other cases have been reported in popular vacation destinations such as Maine, Massachusetts and New Jersey.
In New York state, 21 cases of Powassan have been reported to the state health department since 2000. Department officials, however, say they don't believe the virus is on the rise — there haven't been any new cases in the state since 2015. Last year, the department collected and tested ticks and found that fewer than 2 percent were infected with the Powassan virus, officials say.
Still, Powassan panic has set in, and vacationers are taking action against tick-borne diseases.
In Riverhead, LI, homeowners snatched up every last "tick tube" yard-repellent device from the Talmage Farm & Garden Center, says owner Kim Talmage.
Bug repellent at outdoor-supply stores has also been selling like crazy. Sales of bug spray are up about 6 percent compared to four years ago, as of April, and more than 10 percent for pet bug repellent, according to Nielsen.
"Everyone's been really paranoid," says Connor Harris, manager at Eastern Mountain Sports in Scarsdale, NY, adding that the store sold out of bug repellent a month ago. "I just tell them, 'Join the club.' "
Although ticks can be found in New York City's parks, families are particularly worried as they head north for summer vacations. Caroline Swiatek and her family spend their summer weekends in Connecticut, where their vacation home is surrounded by the woods that ticks love.
"Literally, we saw one tick last year, and then this year, we've already seen six since April," says Swiatek, a 42-year-old mother of two from the Upper West Side who recently found a tick on her daughter's stuffed animal. "It's nuts."
Swiatek had already planned on checking twice a day for ticks, loading up on bug repellent and spraying the perimeter of the yard with insecticide. But then she read reports of Powassan and got really scared. At the end of the summer, she'll get her kids blood tested to make sure they didn't contract any tick-borne diseases.
"If I have to be the mean mom that subjects my kid to a blood test, that's what I have to do," she says. "I've known adults with Lyme disease, and it affects them their whole lives, so we want to avoid that."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the only way to prevent Powassan and Lyme disease is to avoid exposure to ticks by spraying insect repellent with at least 20 percent DEET, picaridin or IR3535, and treating clothes with products that contain permethrin. State health department officials say pets can get a Lyme disease vaccination but humans cannot.
And experts say vigilance is especially important this time of year and through July, when ticks are younger and harder to spot. Those are the ones responsible for a majority of tick-borne diseases.
"We're smack dab in the midst of the worst season," says Richard Ostfeld, a disease ecologist with the Cary Institute. "And I've never had so many people telling me they're finding [ticks] all over the place."
Ostfeld says he understands the Powassan panic, since it's such a devastating disease — it's transmitted instantly, unlike Lyme disease, which takes several hours after a tick has latched on to someone to transmit.
If parents notice their kids or they themselves are displaying flu-like symptoms, it's worth visiting a doctor — this isn't flu season, so it could be Lyme disease.
"I'm a parent with kids going to camp, too," Ostfeld says. "I'm taking it seriously."