BY ARLENE LEWIS
The first sign that the West Nile Virus is still alive and well in Queens came last week in the form of a sick sparrow and a pool of water breeding mosquitoes.
West Nile Found in Queens
The New York State Department of Health has confirmed evidence of this year’s first cases of West Nile Virus in a live sparrow and a mosquito pool in Bellerose.
Despite the discoveries, there are no immediate plans to spray pesticides to kill the mosquitoes that carry the virus, but health officials are urging residents to take precautions against mosquitoes by eliminating standing water, and reporting dead birds to the New York City Department of Health (DOH).
New York City Health Commissioner Neal L.Cohen, M.D. said, “These findings underscore the importance of comprehensive efforts to identify the virus as early as possible. In response to these findings, the city is intensifying its prevention activities in the area.”
Although no humans have tested positive for the disease this year, and there were no signs of the virus at the Bellerose site after the infected mosquitoes were removed, city officials said they will continue prevention efforts, including sweeping standing water from empty lots, spreading larvacide, and increasing community education.
The city’s spraying program has raised controversy since its inception, with opponents claiming that the pesticides are more dangerous to humans than the virus itself.
Sandra Mullin, DOH representative, addressing concerns of anti-spraying environmentalists, said, “At this point, it’s an isolated finding. Unless the virus activity intensifies, we’re going to continue to use preventive measures.”
Officials said city workers will do any spraying, if necessary, and would use Anvil, which, according to city Health Dept. officials, is considered to be safe.
But a memo recently issued internally by the Police Department warned cops to stay clear of pesticide-spraying trucks, and prohibits them from opening vehicle windows during spraying, according to sources.
Emergency Funding Needed
In response to the first discovery of West Nile Virus in New York City, Congressmembers Nita Lowey and Joseph Crowley requested emergency funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for the city’s mosquito eradication programs.
Crowley said he believes the virus is a national threat, and the federal government should step-up its efforts to assist New York City to combat this “public health crisis.”
“New York City taxpayers have spent millions in the campaign against the West Nile Virus,” he said. “It is becoming only more imperative that we maintain our vigilance, and that costs money. Now is the time for FEMA to act.”
Reports indicate the city has spent more than $40 million to combat the virus in the past two years, and in light of the July 19 discovery of the virus in Queens, are expected to spend millions more.
In a letter to FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh, Lowey and Crowley said Queens was the original epicenter of the virus, and the recent outbreak demonstrates it is returning.
They said, “This discovery reflects the fact that federal funding for detection efforts are working successfully.. . but more must be done to protect the public.”
Since the 1999 discovery of the virus in Queens, both Crowley and Lowey have secured $20 million in federal funding for prevention and control efforts.
In addition, Crowley was joined by Lowey in calling for a West Nile coordinator to work with federal, state, and local governments in a coordinated prevention and control campaign.
They were successful in getting then-President Bill Clinton to name Dr. Stephen Ostroff of the Centers for Disease Control to this post.
The representatives also told Allbaugh, “Mosquitoes don’t respect state lines, and it is clearly time for the federal government to stop this virus in its tracks. Families are depending on us to ensure their health and well being.”
Demand To Keep The Spray Away
At a joint meeting held on July 12 between the council’s Contract Subcommittee Councilmember Kathryn Freed, chairperson of the New York City Sierra Club, the Environmental Law and Justice Project, and the No Spray Coalition, demands were made for the city stop spraying pesticides and for a health impact assessment of previous spraying on residents.
According to Freed, although some research shows that chemicals such as malathion, which was used two years ago in the West Nile fight, stay around for months posing exposure risk for children, city officials reopened parks soon after spraying took place.
Freed claimed that last year the city sprayed two asthma – triggering chemicals on residents who suffer from the highest rate of asthma nationwide.
“The Health Department shouldn’t be worsening the health of the people it serves,” she added.
State Department of Health (DOH) Representative Kristine Smith said although two infected birds were found outside the city, everything was going according to the state’s response plan to implement preventive measures.
“We haven’t sprayed yet. DOH policy is to spray only as a last resort when there is an eminent threat to human health,” she said.
While New York City Health Commissioner, Neal L. Cohen, M.D. reported there were no incidents of West Nile virus this year, he continued to urge residents to report dead birds and standing water to the Health Department.
Cohen said the Departments of Health (DOH), Parks and Recreation, Sanitation and the Housing Authority, have all been taking necessary precautions to prevent infestation.
He also announced the DOH is releasing its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), addressing concerns about the need to spray pesticides. The statement concludes that the potential for illness without a program to control the adult mosquito population would be greater than the risk of adverse reactions to chemical spraying.
Cohen said that the DOH has made every effort to review the potential for any adverse impact due to pesticide spraying to control adult mosquitoes.
“We intend to remain vigilant in our emphasis on prevention and prudent in our use of all pesticides,” Cohen said.
Quiet On The Western Front
Officials at Community Board 3, which covers Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst, and parts of Corona, have been asking residents to report pools of water, which could serve as breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
“So far it is relatively quiet,” said Giovanna Reid, district manager. “Last year our phone was ringing of the hook.”
West Nile Survivor Checklist
The following is a checklist of things you can do to prevent the spread of the West Nile Virus:
Make sure that doors and windows have tight-fitting screens. Repair or replace all screens that have tears or holes.
Remove all discarded tires from your property.
Dispose of tin cans, plastic containers, ceramic pots, or similar water-holding containers.
Make sure roof gutters drain properly. Clean clogged gutters in the spring and fall.
Clean and chlorinate swimming pools, outdoor saunas and hot tubs. If not in use, keep empty and covered.
Drain water from pool covers.
Change the water in bird baths every three to four days.
Turn over plastic wading pools and wheelbarrows when not in use.
Eliminate any standing water that collects on your property.
Remind or help neighbors to eliminate breeding sites on their properties.
Some local hardware stores may carry a product called Mosquito Dunk that contains a larvicide — Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (BTI) — for use in areas of standing water around the home but the city Dept. of Health warns Queens residents to read the warning carefully.
Eliminating standing water around the home to reduce breeding sites for mosquitoes and beware, direct handling of larvicides may cause skin and eye irritation.
To report standing water to the Health Department through the West Nile Virus Information Line at 1-877-WNV-4NYC (1-877-968-4692) or the city’s web site (www.nyc.gov/health).
Holding Politicians Accountable: Immigrant Groups Call On Candidates To Pledge Their Devotion
BY ANGELA MONTEFINISE
The New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) group believes it is about time somebody created a system for elected officials and neighbors to communicate better, and this week they will set their plan in motion to deal with the “citizen-government disconnect.”
A Man With A Plan
The plan, called the Government Access and Accountability Campaign, will be announced at a press conference at City Hall on July 29, and is a response to a series of surveys done by NICE during its 2000 Census outreach campaign. Queens Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin will be the keynote speaker.
According to the survey, results clearly show a disconnect between politicians and their constituents, especially in immigrant communities.
Brian Pu-Folkes, the founder of NICE, said, “The results of these surveys were alarming. Both immigrants and non-immigrants were unclear of the roles of their elected officials, and didn’t know who they were. In addition, and most importantly, immigrants showed a fear of the American political system. They seemed to distrust the system, and government cannot work effectively if that is the case.”
In additional NICE surveys done in May, both immigrants and non-immigrants in Jackson Heights, Forest Hills, Corona, Elmhurst and Flushing had trouble identifying their City Council member, and were unclear of how to contact them.
Of the 257 residents surveyed, only seven percent of them could name their City Council representative.
“City Council representatives should be close to their constituents,” Pu-Folkes said. “City Council members are neighborhood politicians, in a way. They should be accessible to residents and residents should be aware of who they are. There is a disconnect between politicians and community members that must be closed.”
Closing The Gap
NICE has founded the Government Access and Accountability Campaign, which is now supported by 16 cultural and political organizations across New York City. The campaign asks new City Council representatives to “make their best efforts” to increase accessibility to their constituents by complying with three suggestions.
First, City Council members are asked to hold at least two town meetings each year, with translators for non-English speaking residents. Pu-Folkes said, “Meetings are extremely important. Council members have to speak directly with constituents on a regular basis. The meetings should be held at an accessible location, and translators should be available. This will keep people up-to-date on issues in their district.”
Council members are also asked to mail Annual District Needs Surveys to constituents. These surveys ask residents what they think the important district issues are and what needs to be done to address them. Pu-Folkes said, “These surveys may start slow and catch on. Immigrants particularly may be nervous about filling them out the first year, but once the benefits become clear to them, we hope it will have a snowball effect.”
The last request in the campaign is that council members make an Annual Constituent Report available to constituents.
The report should outline the activities of the council member’s office, including how many calls were made, how many mailings were made, how constituents were helped, and what some of the key problems in the district were.
Pu-Folkes said that currently council members are not quick to respond to requests for similar information. He said, “My organization tried to contact all City Council members to ask them for constituent information in May. We sent surveys via snail mail, e-mail and telephone. Of the 51 members of City Council, seven responded.” Of the seven, only two responses came from Queens.
Pu-Folkes said, “There are council members without websites or e-mail access in the year 2001. That’s unacceptable. If council members comply with our campaign, accessibility problems will slowly be solved.”
NICE sent letters on July 20 to every City Council candidate in New York asking them to support the campaign. Pu-Folkes is expecting a positive response. “I think a fair amount of candidates will respond,” he said. “I think once a few candidates support the campaign, many others will follow.”
Pu-Folkes said that NICE will work with council members who cannot afford to comply with the campaign. He said, “We know that districts are on a budget. Not every district can have two big town hall meetings. We will help them fund these things.”
Verizon, a major corporate entity, has agreed to help NICE with this venture, awarding the organization a three-year grant for the campaign. New Immigrant Community Empowerment will receive a minimum of $20,000 during the first year of funding.
The grant will be shared by NICE, the Taft Institute for Government at Queens College, and the St. John’s University Committee on Latin American and Caribbean Studies. The two schools will work with NICE in the future by offering Civic Education Online Courses in 2004. Pu-Folkes said, “The Civic Education courses are part of the campaign, but a part in the future right now. The disconnect between politicians and government is a two-sided disconnect. Politicians are not the only ones not making the effort, it’s also residents. They are not aware of their civic responsibilities and rights, and these courses will bring them up to speed.”
The campaign will be tested in three Queens districts – 20, 21, 25 – during the first election cycle. Pu-Folkes said that the campaign is not limited to those areas, however. “We will be concentrating in those areas,” he said. “If a group wants to follow our model in other districts, though, we will work with them and implement the plan there as well.”
In addition to the three requests and the civic course, there will also be a massive outreach campaign by NICE to get residents interested in the campaign and aware that surveys could be coming through direct mail. NICE will run non-partisan candidate forums, a community blitz to help residents understand the position of candidates, and sample town hall meetings to show residents what the meetings will be like.
A Homegrown Talent
Pu-Folkes, who has lived his entire adult life in Jackson Heights and Jamaica, believes strongly in this campaign, and thinks it will greatly help Queens. “I’m a Queens boy,” Pu-Folkes said. “I love Queens. I always tell people visiting New York, sure you need to see the Brooklyn Bridge and the Village and all that, but you have to see Queens. Where else can you walk four blocks and see fifteen different cultures? This diversity is wonderful, but it can cause governmental problems with accessibility. With new cultures constantly coming in, it’s hard to incorporate all of them, and nowhere in the city is that more evident than in Queens. Our campaign is still being tested, and we have some kinks to work out, but we are confident it will succeed and really help Queens and New York become a greater place.”
Pu-Folkes is a graduate of both Hillcrest High School and Queens College, and is the son of two immigrants. “I saw how hard it was for my parents to adjust to life here,” he said. “It’s still hard for them. My mom is from Burma and my dad is from Jamaica. They had to work hard to succeed, as is the case for most immigrants. Knowing that they have a council member in their corner is key to them feeling more comfortable. In the same way, it’s extremely important for council members to know what their constituents want. This campaign would benefit everybody.”
Sample copies of the surveys, as well as more information on the campaign, are available on NICE’s website, at www.nynice.org.