Miami Isn’t Waiting on Congress Funds to Fight Zika

But those funds really do need to be released soon.
August 12, 2016, 12:00pm
A Miami-Dade County mosquito control worker sprays around a school in Wynwood Image: AP Photo/Alan Diaz

Every day for the past few months, the Florida Department of Health has published an update on the spread of Zika in the state. And almost every day for the past two weeks, a new locally-transmitted case emerges. Everyone from Hillary Clinton to the head of the CDC Foundation is calling on Congress to go back to work early and pass a crucial funding bill to fight the mosquito-spread virus. But for those living in affected areas, there's no time to wait around for federal funds.

Instead, state, municipal, and community-level groups are scrambling to make the funds they've got have the biggest impact and limit the spread of this potentially deadly disease.

On July 29, Florida health officials confirmed four cases of locally-transmitted Zika virus—meaning the people got sick from mosquitoes in the US, not while travelling outside the country. These were the first cases of Zika transmission in the US, and since then, a total of 25 locally transmitted cases have emerged, all within a one-square-mile area of Miami called Wynwood. Rather than wait for funding, the community has already launched efforts to stave off a widespread outbreak.

"It has to be a combined effort so it's not solely on the Department of Health," said Paul Velez, the chief administrative officer at the Borinquen Medical Centers, which has its main clinic right in the middle of Wynwood.

The Borinquen clinic is one of multiple locations where pregnant women can get free access to Zika testing and counseling on how to avoid the disease, with funds from the Florida Department of Health, Velez said.

The state has set aside $26 million to combat the disease, according to Governor Rick Scott, which includes education, prevention kits, and testing. The county has started aerial spraying a potent insecticide over the area to wipe out the virus-carrying mosquitoes, as well as spraying on the ground. And Medicaid has been approved to cover insect repellent to help people avoid bites.

But it goes beyond government-funded initiatives. Local Wynwood doctors have created fliers to hand out to patients, giving them information about the virus and how it spread. Daycare centers are being fumigated to kill off Zika-carrying mosquitoes. Police officers are handing out bug spray to the homeless. And researchers from nearby Florida International University have teamed up with the Medical Reserves Corps and volunteers to go door-to-door, testing for the virus and providing information.

"We're working together and collaborating," Velez told me.

The Zika virus, which has been spreading rapidly across Latin America, usually doesn't cause any symptoms in adults; At worst, you'll get a fever and flu-like symptoms. But it has been shown to sometimes cause a severe birth defect in babies called microcephaly that can be deadly, leading the Centers for Disease Control to issue a travel warning for pregnant women to avoid Miami. It's the only time the CDC has ever issued a travel warning for our own country.

The good news is that the strategies being used in Wynwood may succeed in keeping Zika at bay: monitoring and vector control are key to fending off mosquito-borne diseases. But that doesn't change the fact that Congress left many Americans in the lurch by not compromising on a funding billbefore summer break. The White House has juggled some funding around to help bridge the gap, but Congress's lack of action left Gulf State politicians on both sides of the aisle with a sour taste.

"There are lives at stake and the problem gets worse literally every day," Representative Alan Grayson told CNBC. "Every single day means more Zika babies and more deaths."