Low-income communities in the United States suffer high pest infestation rates and unhealthy environments resulting from pest infestations. For example, a recent survey conducted in four cities in New Jersey found that 37, 20 and 9 percent of low-income homes were infested with cockroaches, rodents and bed bugs, respectively (Abbar et al. 2022). These pests are not only a health concern to the building occupants, but they also pose a significant economic burden to building managers.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have negatively impacted pest control operations due to limited access and reduced services. As a result, pest treatments were often delayed, increasing pest population levels and dissemination to other apartments within a building.
Many questions need to be answered to properly address pest infestations in low-income housing. For example, who undertakes pest control services (PMPs or in-house personnel), and how is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic impacting pest control services and pest infestations? In 2021, researchers from New Jersey, Tennessee, Indiana and Arizona conducted surveys in collaboration with low-income housing agency managers to investigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on pest control practices and pest infestations in five states. Here, we report our findings.
SURVEY METHODS. A questionnaire was designed to gather the following information: No. 1, background information on current pest control services, including who provided the service and the frequency of pest control contract renewal; No. 2, impacts resulting from the pandemic on pest infestations and pest control services; No. 3, changes housing agencies have made, or plan to make, to pest control services as a result of COVID-19; and No. 4, housing agency interest in free pest inspections and/or training services. Survey data was gathered between March and December 2021.
Rutgers University served as the designated institution of record. Survey documents and methods were granted approval according to the terms of the Institutional Review Board (IRB) Pro2021000184. Purdue University and the University of Arizona IRBs agreed to rely on the review, approval and continuing oversight of the Rutgers University IRB Authorization Agreement. The University of Tennessee IRB required its own review (UTK IRB-21-06308-XM).
SURVEY PARTICIPANTS. In New Jersey, we contacted 54 housing communities. Among them, 13 completed the survey. One agency returned four completed surveys by four property managers. In Tennessee, we reached 89 communities through emails and phone calls and 15 surveys were completed. Purdue researchers obtained four completed surveys from Indiana and one survey from Illinois by contacting their existing collaborators. Arizona researchers obtained three surveys after contacting 21 existing collaborators in Arizona.
In total, we received 39 completed surveys from 36 agencies. Among the agencies that completed the questionnaire, 74 percent were public housing, 6 percent private housing and 21 percent contained public and private properties. Each agency managed between one to 516 buildings with 119 to more than 2,000 units per agency. Some agencies only indicated the number of buildings or units, but not both. Therefore, more buildings may have been managed than is shown here.
SURVEY QUESTIONS AND RESULTS. Who performs the pest control? Based on 35 agencies, 77 percent used outside contractors, 11 percent used in-house staff and 11 percent used a combination of contractor and in-house staff.
How often is the pest control contract renewed? Based on 23 agencies, 13, 26, 30 and 30 percent renewed their contracts every five, three, two and one year(s), respectively.
Were there changes in general pest control cost from 2019 to 2020? Based on 20 agencies, nine of them said the pest control cost decreased, five agencies said the cost increased and six agencies said the cost remained same.
Were there changes in bed bug control cost from 2019 to 2020? Based on 16 agencies, seven of them said that bed bug control cost decreased, seven of them said the cost increased and two agencies said the cost remained the same.
Are you planning on making any changes to your pest control contract as a result of COVID? Based on 35 agencies, 29 percent said they plan to make changes to the pest control contracts as a result of COVID.
Do the pest control services provided match the services stated in the contract? Among the 30 survey respondents, 47 percent said well-matched and 53 percent said matched. No agencies said the services provided did not match those stated in the contract.
If researchers provide free training and consultancy to your staff and residents on effective pest control methods, are you interested in participating? Among the 37 survey respondents, 92 percent said yes, and 8 percent said no.
If researchers can provide free pest inspection or control service, will you be interested in participating? Among the 37 survey respondents, 95 percent said yes, and 5 percent said no.
Low-income housing managers and residents believe that lack of resident cooperation and property maintenance are responsible for high pest prevalence or control failures.
Courtesy Changlu Wang
Were there any changes in the frequency of scheduled visits due to COVID? Among the 38 survey respondents, 76 percent said yes, and 24 percent said no.
Was the change in frequency of regularly scheduled visits due to the service provider or the housing agency? Among the 24 survey respondents, all said the change was due to the housing agency.
Do you believe the number of bed bug complaints by residents increased, decreased or stayed the same in your community as a result of COVID-19? Among the 38 survey respondents, 21, 29 and 50 percent said the complaints increased, decreased and remained the same, respectively.
Do you believe the number of cockroach complaints by residents increased, decreased or stayed the same in your community as a result of COVID-19? Among the 38 survey respondents, 26, 16 and 58 percent said the complaints increased, decreased and remained the same, respectively.
The highest percentage of surveyed housing agencies believed cockroach infestations increased compared to a few years ago.
Courtesy Changlu Wang
Do you believe the number of house mouse complaints by residents increased, decreased or stayed the same in your community as a result of COVID-19? Among the 38 survey respondents, 18, 11 and 71 percent said the complaints increased, decreased and remained the same, respectively.
Do you believe the number of other pest complaints by residents increased, decreased or stayed the same in your community as a result of COVID-19? Among the 25 survey respondents, 24, 8 and 68 percent said the complaints increased, decreased and remained the same, respectively.
Do you believe the pest infestations that you are currently encountering have increased in severity compared to the past few years? Among the 38 survey respondents, 34 percent said yes, and 66 percent said no.
Do you believe the cockroach infestations that you are currently encountering have increased in severity compared to the past few years? Among the 38 survey respondents, 37 percent said yes, and 63 percent said no.
Do you believe the house mouse infestations that you are currently encountering have increased in severity compared to the past few years? Among the 38 survey respondents, 16 percent said yes, and 84 percent said no.
Do you believe the other pest infestations that you are currently encountering have increased in severity compared to the past few years? Among the 29 survey respondents, 10 percent said yes, and 90 percent said no.
Has your policy/procedure changed as a result of COVID regarding accessing the apartment when residents refused entry for a pest inspection or treatment? Among the 37 survey respondents, 51 percent said yes, and 49 percent said no.
DISCUSSION. Survey data indicates the majority (77 percent) of housing agencies used contracted pest control services. Only 11 percent of surveyed agencies used in-house staff to deal with pest issues. In-house staff are familiar with the properties and residents.
Using in-house licensed staff to manage pest issues has several advantages: No.1, it saves the cost of staff escorting contractors one to two days a month in each property; No. 2, it is more flexible than hiring a contractor for scheduling, treating emergency complaints and planning follow-up inspections and re-treatments; and No. 3, it is likely much cheaper for in-house staff to conduct nonchemical control procedures such as rodent proofing, decluttering or cleaning compared to contracted services.
In-house pest control services can be very effective as evidenced by a model bed bug control study (Cooper et al. 2015). However, it requires the staff to receive regular training and keep their pesticide applicator licenses updated. Service quality of individual staff members may vary as their supervisors are not trained in pest control.
We found evidence of decreased pest control cost due at least partially to reduced service visits as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Seventy-six percent of surveyed agencies experienced changes in scheduled services, and all of the changes were pandemic-related policy changes implemented by the housing agencies.
The current contracted services generally met the expectations of the housing agencies. Housing managers and residents believe that lack of resident cooperation and property maintenance are responsible for high pest prevalence or control failures. While these factors are associated with indoor pest infestations (Schal 1998, Wang et al. 2019), pests can still be eliminated if an effective pest management program exists.
For example, Cooper et al. (2015) found that bed bug infestations in three high-rise apartment buildings were reduced from 15 percent to 2.2 percent after 12 months of adopting an improved bed bug control program from 2012 to 2013. Licensed in-house staff achieved this improvement following the guidance of Rutgers University researchers.
In another example, Rutgers University researchers compared a researcher-delivered integrated pest management (IPM) and a contractor’s service for cockroach control in two high-rise apartment buildings in Paterson, N.J. After 12-14 months, 89 percent of the apartments in the IPM building had cockroach counts reduced to zero compared to only 53 percent of the infested apartments in the building serviced by a contractor that had cockroach counts reduced to zero (Wang et al. 2019).
There were no apparent changes in resident cooperation or maintenance of the properties by the housing staff in either case.
These examples demonstrate the lack of effective pest management services provided by low-income housing. Ineffective pest control services led to a high percentage of residents using their own methods to control pests — 78 percent of interviewed low-income residents implemented methods themselves in a six-month period to control pests in a 2018 survey of 876 residents (Abbar et al. 2022). Among those self-administered control methods, the most common method (54.5 percent) was spray.
The current COVID-19 pandemic affected scheduled pest control services in 76 percent of surveyed agencies. About half of the agencies also changed control policies or procedures. Examples of changes included the suspension of monthly pest control service except emergency requests, screening tenants for COVID symptoms prior to providing service and technicians wearing personal protection equipment.
As a result, 34 percent of surveyed agencies said pest infestations increased compared to pre-COVID-19 times. More agencies reported cockroach and house mouse complaints increased than decreased. Interestingly, “other pest” infestation complaints, mainly ants and spiders, also increased.
In contrast, fewer agencies reported that bed bug complaints increased than those that said they decreased. The decrease in bed bug complaints might result from less travel and fewer visitors to residents during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, there was also an overall decreasing trend in bed bug infestations over the recent years based on a 2018 survey in New Jersey (Abbar et al. 2022) and bed bug complaint records during 2010-2019 in New York City (Hacker et al. 2020). Although, bed bug complaints and actual bed bug infestations are often poorly correlated (Vail and Chandler 2021).
Among the three groups of pests (cockroaches, mice and other pests), the highest percentage of surveyed agencies believed cockroach infestations increased compared to a few years ago. It is very possible that cockroach infestations increased mainly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is plausible due to the elimination of routine services and increased human presence and poorer sanitation in apartments during the pandemic, coupled with the fast reproductive rate and short life cycle of German cockroaches.
Some of the surveyed agencies also reported increased hoarding of food and other household items by residents during the pandemic.
Increased hoarding and the resulting buildup of clutter were at least partially caused by panic buying, increased food donations by nonprofit organizations during the early phase of the pandemic and monetary resources resulting from government stimulus programs.
Most housing agencies welcome free training and pest inspection, which is encouraging as educating the staff and residents is urgently needed. Past resident and staff surveys have repeatedly revealed under-reporting of pest activity, the prevalence of ineffective self-control methods and the lack of cooperation from residents in assisting the pest control services (Wang et al. 2016, 2019).
Only when the staff and residents become more concerned about pest infestations and more knowledgeable about their management can we make effective policy changes, adopt more effective pest control practices, reduce the introduction of pests and ultimately reduce pest infestation rates that currently plague most low- income communities.
There are many free training materials and programs available (e.g., www.stoppests.org), including those delivered by statewide Extension specialists with urban entomology responsibilities.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and National Institute of Food and Agriculture have grant programs to support the adoption of IPM.
Yet, getting low-income communities to adopt IPM is still challenging. There is still a long way for researchers and educators to establish mutually beneficial partnerships to increase the adoption of more effective pest control practices.
CONCLUSIONS. We found the COVID-19 pandemic caused disruptions in scheduled pest control services. There were increased pest complaints (except bed bugs) and infestations in low-income housing with the greatest increase associated with cockroaches. Despite the continued high pest infestation rates, the current pest control contracts meet the housing agencies’ expectations. There remains a strong need to educate housing agency personnel and residents to help them adopt more effective pest management policies and contracts and to reduce the indoor pest infestations significantly.