Lyme disease a concern as Toronto tick testing program cancelled due to COVID-19

With COVID-19 dominating public health units around the world, Toronto Public Health has quietly suspended a program that protects residents against another dangerous infectious disease: Lyme.

Experts fear Lyme disease could surge with less surveillance and more people outdoors during pandemic

An adult black-legged tick. The City of Toronto has cancelled a program that monitors these insects because of COVID-19. (Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images)

With COVID-19 dominating public health units around the world, Toronto Public Health has quietly suspended a program that protects residents against another dangerous infectious disease: Lyme. 

At a time when more people ventured outdoors during pandemic lockdowns, the City of Toronto stopped its tick surveillance program, which monitors those very outdoor spaces for Blacklegged ticks.

Known as tick dragging, the process is completed in the spring and fall in areas that have natural habitats for the insects. Some of the city's most popular parks are combed, including High Park, Taylor Creek and Centre Island. Ticks are collected, documented and tested for the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.

But the program hasn't happened since 2019 and there is no indication when it will resume.

"Tick surveillance was among the suspended City of Toronto services in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic," a city spokesperson wrote to CBC Toronto. "We will keep the public informed when these public health services resume."

Deer ticks are smaller than the common brown dog tick and can be vectors for Lyme disease. (Ben Garver/The Berkshire Eagle via The Associated Press)

The lack of surveillance is concerning for those with first hand experience dealing with Lyme disease.

"I find it really disappointing. Ticks don't go away because there's this other health concern in the headlines," said Samantha Simon, whose daughter Emily was bitten by a tick in 2017 in the community of Durham in West Grey County.

She was two years old at the time, became "very, very sick" and was eventually diagnosed with Lyme disease. Treatment involved seeing a specialist in British Columbia and taking antibiotics for two years. Emily still has lingering symptoms including occasional headaches and joint pain.

The Lyme disease diagnosis wasn't easy and took three months to be confirmed. Simon worries with less tick surveillance and documentation in Toronto, Lyme disease won't be "on the radar" of physicians and infections will go unnoticed.

"Doctors aren't on the lookout for Lyme disease when people are presenting themselves with symptoms because we don't have that surveillance happening," Simon said in an interview.

"It's really sad to see."

Samantha Simon with her family. Her young daughter, Emily, was bitten by a tick in 2017 and diagnosed with Lyme disease. (Submitted by Samantha Simon)

In 2019, the most recent year for data, there were 1,158 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in Ontario, resulting in 36 hospitalizations, according to Public Health Ontario.

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto's University Health Network, agrees that less surveillance may mean more cases of Lyme will go undiagnosed. 

He says it has a "broad range" of symptoms and with Lyme disease on the rise in Canada, the data that surveillance programs provide can help physicians pinpoint the illness.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch says many health care providers are missing the "broad symptoms" of Lyme disease and tick surveillance programs can help them pinpoint the illness. (Submitted by Isaac Bogoch)

"Programs like these are instrumental in helping us understand where people can get Lyme," Bogoch said in an interview.

The latest data and studies on Lyme disease do not include the period impacted by COVID-19, but Bogoch expects to see an increase, especially in the heavily-locked down summer of 2020, when many people sought outdoor experiences in parks and campgrounds. 

"We need to map out where Lyme is, it's as simple as that. It's very useful."