Pandemic sees changes in pest management for public housing

By: Katlyn Streilein

Amanda Johnston didn’t think much of it when she saw a bug dash across her couch. Until she saw another—and another. She scoured her furniture and found the bed bug trademark: tiny black stains.

“Part of me is afraid to go to my bedroom and go to sleep because I don’t want to spread it,” the 31-year-old said.

On Nov. 12, 2020, Manitoba Housing paused chemical treatment in many buildings because of COVID-19, such as the highrise Johnston has lived in the past two years. 

Amanda Johnston, 31, is fighting back against the bed bug and cockroach problem in her downtown highrise. /KATLYNSTREILEIN

A spokesperson from Manitoba Housing said it’s risky for residents to gather in common areas or public spaces for hours while suites are fumigated.   

Records show Manitoba Housing’s pest management team inspected Johnston’s building monthly since last spring but have since switched to non-invasive treatments.

“In terms of pleasing everyone, it’s very complex treating for pests in public housing,” the spokesperson said. “I definitely sympathize with the people who are living with pests.”

The bed bug population in Johnston’s suite exploded after chemical treatments were put on hold, she said.

Johnston told her father about the infestation, who then called a local pest management company. Johnston said the company couldn’t take the job because Manitoba Housing retains in-house specialists and typically doesn’t contract out.

Exterminators usually treat the suites adjacent infected suites, since insects scatter when they detect poison. Manitoba Housing advises against self-treatment because of this, and because the average person isn’t well-versed using insecticides.

Johnston bought a bottle of a common household pesticide from a local pest management company, determined to rid herself of the bed bugs and reclaim a good night’s rest. 

“Because I was so panicked, I actually ended up spraying way more than I should have,” she said, adding that she sprayed her bedding and went to sleep. Johnston said she ended up becoming violently ill as a result of this.

The bed bug spray Johnston used contained a toxin called pyrethrin, which has been known to cause tremors and seizures, if inhaled in high concentrations.

“I was so scared,” she said.

Johnston’s bug problem centred around a large couch in her living room. She said she lugged the floral three-seater down six flights of stairs to the dumpster in the parking lot, giving no quarter to the critters.  

Black stains left behind by bed bugs dot the creases of Amanda Johnston’s sofa. Earlier this month, Johnston disposed of the couch to help curb the infestation. Photo supplied by: Amanda Johnston

While many are still dealing with bed bugs amid the pandemic, Poulin’s Pest Control director Taz Stuart said the company’s bed bug reports are down 16 per cent since this time last year.

This is the first time since 2000 the company has recorded a drop in reports, Stuart said.

The company performed 800 fewer treatments in 2020 than the year before. 

Johnston is also coping with German cockroaches (Blattella germanica). The creatures congregate in the kitchen, crawl in the cupboards, and lay eggs under the sink.

Experts from Poulin’s, Abell, and Gilles Lambert Pest Control agreed 2020 was a banner year for these light brown, winged insects. Poulin’s reported a 28 per cent increase year over year.

“Cockroaches are getting hot. It’s getting to the point where it’s almost as bad as bed bugs,” said Gilles Lambert.

The climate crisis will cause new pest control problems due to warmer temperatures, said Lambert, adding that mild environments give pests more time to reproduce. A single female roach can produce 30 or more babies in as many days, without a male.

Manitoba Housing will resume chemical treatments once public health restrictions are lifted, the spokesperson said.

For now, Johnston said she’ll continue to battle the bugs on her own by changing her bedding daily, vacuuming, and using insecticides.