While bedbugs are not spreading as quickly as they were before COVID-19 restrictions were in place, the infestation remains a cruel reality for many Toronto residents.
Toronto Public Health (TPH) and pest control companies have noticed fewer calls to monitor bedbugs over the past year as people are less likely to leave their homes and slow the spread of insects in the city during the pandemic.
The tiny, bloodthirsty pests are hitchhikers who jump from one person’s clothes and belongings to the next. But “if we have these locks and people just stay home and don’t move, it restricts bedbugs from traveling 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, inquiries and inquiries about bed bugs, according to spokeswoman Tracy Leach. That is almost 470 fewer calls than in the previous year: According to Leach, TPH received 1,267 inquiries about bed bugs in 2019.
Orkin also noted a 20 percent decrease in calls across Canada in 2020. Similarly, ACORN, a union for low and middle income people, found that the number of members in Toronto who saw bed bugs in their home last year was almost half the figure last year.
Unlike the cities of Orkin and ACORN, Toronto Community Housing has not seen a significant drop in bedbug sightings.
The “portfolio of around 60,000 apartments and townhouses has remained stable during the pandemic,” said a spokesman. “While we handled cases carefully, we had to pause prevention programs during the pandemic to keep everyone safe.”
Though people don’t spread bugs with rates prior to COVID-19, Many Toronto residents still face infestations at home. And as soon as public spaces are reopened, there can be an increase in bug sightings – especially when people go to facilities that have long been closed, such as offices and cinemas.
“Bedbugs live long without a blood meal,” Kurt said. According to Orkin’s website, the insects can live without a meal for a year. “If we go back to any of these places, there will be bugs and they will be hungry.”
Kurt also said that private conversations from last year were more frequent than usual. “When people stay home, their threshold for allowing insects in their home is much lower,” he said. “Whether it’s a bug, a cockroach or an ant, they don’t want to see it there.”
The most terrible thing about bedbugs is the emotional stress they cause. For many people, the very thought of tiny bugs crawling on their bodies and feeding on their blood can be traumatic.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of customers where they literally cry in tears and want to do something right away,” said Kurt.
Bedbugs have been a problem in the city for many years. Between 2007 and 2015, former star columnist Joe Fiorito wrote extensively about people in town who had been exposed to the infestation, including a woman who saw bedbugs “blown out” of her home in a 2008 fire.
City and pest control companies may get fewer calls just because people don’t know they can hire an exterminator during COVID-19. Luqman Butter, a manager at Pestend Pest Control, said some of their callers weren’t even sure they were operating during the pandemic.
“People keep asking us if we’re still open to business and we tell them, ‘Yes, pest control is essential and we’re working as usual,” said Butter. “There might be a percentage of people who might not even be bother calling because they think they may not be able to seek help during this lockdown. “
This kind of ignorance could prevent people from living comfortably, especially with orders that are left at home.
Ria Rinne, co-chair of the Etobicoke chapter of ACORN, was investigating a bedbug infestation in Ottawa. It was a source of fear for her and her roommate at the time, but they were able to get the bugs exterminated with the help of their landlord and their support networks.
“My biggest fear during this pandemic is that landlords are taking a laissez-faire approach and using the pandemic as an excuse not to worry about pest control issues,” said Rinne.
Rinne hopes the city will accept ACORN’s request to put color-coded signs in residential buildings warning current and potential tenants of the building’s pest condition as it is used in restaurants.
At the moment, she advises tenants to speak to their landlords if they see bed bugs or 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,” said Rinne.