It would become a public health concern for all and dominate everyday life, but when it first appeared in North America little was known about the shadowy threat. Over the subsequent months, however, the virus spread and eventually found its way to Bucks and Montgomery counties. It sickened many with flu-like symptoms and other conditions, and even resulted in death. There was no known cure or vaccine.

That’s COVID-19, right? Sounds like it, but despite similarities it is how a different public health matter started here 20 years ago. West Nile Virus.

The mosquito-borne West Nile -- its name derived from its start in the Middle East -- created public anxiety and fear because if bitten by an infected mosquito, the virus could cause flu-like problems, encephalitis, and even result in death. In its initial years, West Nile Virus sickened and hospitalized hundreds, and killed several dozen, in Bucks and Montgomery and throughout Pennsylvania.

How was the condition handled? Was nothing done, but blame placed on a foreign country? Was it said the disease would miraculously disappear? Were political conspiracy theories floated online?

Fortunately, leaders did something. To detect, track and control West Nile Virus, the state put together a comprehensive surveillance program that today still closely follows the disease presence, handles pest control programs like field spraying and reduction of standing water, establishes habitat reduction and runs education programs to teach the public about the signs and symptoms of West Nile.

As a result, the number of virus positives locally and statewide have dropped. And so, too, has public anxiety over mosquito bites. Though at a lower rate today, West Nile Virus still exists. In fact, the state Health Department last month confirmed its first 2020 human case in a Potter County individual. State officials urged the public to take basic steps to protect themselves against mosquitoes and the virus.

“While we encourage Pennsylvanians to enjoy the outdoors, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, we also want them to take proper precautions from mosquitoes while outside,” said Dr. Rachel Levine, state Health Department Secretary.

Still, you can’t help but wonder if those dynamic mosquitoes couldn’t be involved in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There has been no information nor evidence to suggest that the new coronavirus could be transmitted by mosquitoes,” according to the World Health Organization. “The new coronavirus is a respiratory virus which spreads primarily through droplets generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes, or through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose.”

Had the COVID-19 development last January been immediately handled like Pennsylvania’s efficient West Nile Virus response, matters today would be better regarding the U.S economy and job market, coronavirus activity nationwide, and school reopening worries.

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