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By Helicopter, Car, and on Foot, Deployment of Rabies Vaccine Expands Across Cape Cod

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U.S. Department of Agriculture
Liquid rabies vaccine inside edible baits will be dropped from helicopters in the orange area. The yellow indicates where baits will be distributed from the ground. In gray, the area on both sides of the canal received vaccine in the spring after a raccoon was found with rabies in Hyannis — the first case on Cape Cod in more than eight years.

Don’t be alarmed if you see small objects tossed from a helicopter on Cape Cod next week.

The Cape rabies program, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, plans to air-drop raccoon baits filled with oral rabies vaccine from Bourne to Orleans.

This is the first time vaccine will be air dropped on that part of the Cape, in an effort to distribute vaccine faster and prevent the return of raccoon-variant rabies to Cape Cod following the discovery of an infected raccoon in Hyannis in May.

Until then, it had been more than eight years since rabies was detected in a raccoon on Cape Cod, according to Brian Bjorklund, a USDA wildlife biologist and coordinator of the Cape Cod rabies program.

“We have two federally owned helicopters that will be joining us on Monday, to get out baits in some of the more undeveloped areas and lesser populated areas,” he said. “The reason for the helicopters is, this is an emergency situation where we need to get the baits out as soon as possible, and as uniformly as possible.”

With help from Cape Cod town employees, federal employees, and volunteers, additional baits will be distributed from vehicles and on foot. The work will run from July 12 through 23. Two helicopters — one red and black, the other white and orange — are expected to be flying low from Bourne to Orleans for three or four days next week.

Erika Woods, co-chair of the Cape Cod and Southeast Massachusetts Rabies Task Force, said the edible baits are about the size and shape of ketchup packets, and various vehicles will be used to distribute them.

“It could be a regular vehicle, it could be a town vehicle, municipal vehicle — but they're basically going to be throwing these ketchup packets out the windows,” she said.

The effort follows previous baiting from the ground near the Cape Cod Canal in the spring, along with an emergency trap-and-release vaccination campaign after the discovery of the Hyannis case.

Bjorkland said the case could stem from a human relocating wildlife, which is against the law in Massachusetts. But officials don’t really know how the rabies case appeared in Hyannis.

Ground distribution of baits is normally done twice a year on the Cape, but officials are trying to speed up the process by air this year. Ground-based bait stations can take a month to deploy, Bjorklund said.

He said using helicopters isn’t completely new to the Cape; they were used about a decade ago over the Cape Cod National Seashore.

Dogs and other non-target animals can be attracted to the baits. Officials say the baits are generally not harmful to pets, but dogs should be leashed to avoid spoiling a dose that could go to wildlife.

Each bait has a phone number on it, and the Massachusetts Department of Health asks anyone who comes into contact with a bait to call and report it, including whether anyone touched the liquid inside the bait.

Dr. Catherine Brown, Massachusetts state epidemiologist and public health veterinarian, said the state tracks all interactions with the packets.

She said in a very small number of cases nationally, a person with eczema or another skin condition has reacted to the liquid. But she called reactions “vanishingly rare.”