Sunday, December 17, 2017
Business

Trigaux: Economic costs will spike if Florida's response to spread of Zika is too little, too late

In the branding vacuum that many economic developers and marketers worry leaves the modern Sunshine State so undefined, there's a new danger. Florida soon could get tagged with an onerous brand not of its own making.

The Zika State.

I'm not saying this is a done deal. Not by a long shot. But events tied to the spread of the Zika virus are quickly accelerating. That suggests Florida may be losing control of its expensively marketed image as a primo tourist destination, a rising hot spot for business relocations and — potentially — as the future retirement mecca for millions of aging baby boomers.

"Travel experts say families worried about Zika are now looking to Arizona and Southern California to get some sun, along with cooler-weather locales such as New England and Canada," the Associated Press reported last week.

The odds are rising fast that Florida's multiyear run of tourism records is in jeopardy.

Zika, of course, is first and foremost a public health priority. But it holds the threat to deliver a significant economic blow to Florida if the virus spreads quickly and undermines this state's "come play, come live" messaging. And if Zika becomes a big issue in Florida, the rest of the country could soon follow.

In hindsight, the early story of Zika in Florida reads more like a classic Carl Hiaasen novel — a satire of what not to do to get ahead of the spread of a mosquito-borne disease that also can be spread by sexual contact and apparently via blood transfusion. Florida leaders suggesting Zika was at first confined (and could therefore be limited) to a small part of a Miami neighborhood — as if mosquitoes honor Google map boundaries — was absurd. Hurricane Hermine did not help by refilling puddles, flower pots, tires and gutters across much of the state, encouraging more mosquito breeding.

Not that the mosquito is the only carrier of Zika. People are, too. And they are very mobile.

It does not help that we still do not understand all of the consequences of contracting the Zika virus. The documented chances of severe brain damage and hearing loss to babies born to infected mothers and increasing cases of adult paralysis seem to be just the start of a longer list of potentially debilitating ailments. Florida Surgeon General Celeste Philip says Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare nervous system illness that can cause muscle weakness and paralysis, has been connected to Zika.

A mid August poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation on Americans' health care attitudes finds almost half are wary of traveling to places where people have been infected with the Zika virus by mosquitoes. Obviously, that includes parts of Florida, and that geography is expanding beyond Miami and Miami Beach. Zika has reached Tampa Bay.

In Orlando, theme parks are taking early precautions to counter Zika fears from the millions of tourists who drive so much of their economy. I'm just not sure making free bug spray available within the parks is going to assure future visitors that they are safe. Especially pregnant women or — the core of Orlando's target audience — families, including those contemplating having more kids.

The same goes for the efforts by the Miami Dolphins. The franchise is using backpack foggers 48 hours before every home game. That included Thursday's preseason finale at home against the Tennessee Titans and Saturday's home opener for the University of Miami at Hard Rock Stadium.

Sure, Florida has faced exotic disease threats before. A bit of Ebola. West Nile virus. Even dengue fever. Experts warn more are in the pipeline, too, thanks to global travel and Florida's appeal.

But Zika is tricky.

Ron Klain, the 2014-2015 White House "Ebola czar" response coordinator, warned in the Aug. 28 Wall Street Journal that Ebola presented itself early, with flulike symptoms.

"But among the many reasons policymakers and citizens are not taking seriously enough the potential threat and consequences of Zika is that just the opposite is true for this virus," Klain wrote. "About 80 percent of people who contract the Zika virus experience no symptoms." And people without symptoms are not getting tested for the virus, even if they have been to Zika-affected countries (like the Olympics in Brazil) or U.S. areas where Zika is spreading.

"This means that most people in the U.S. and its territories who have Zika do not know that they have the virus," Klain said. Given the number of people diagnosed with Zika in the United States and its territories (Puerto Rico is hard hit), and four of five do not show symptoms, Klain estimates the number of Zika cases is probably already in the tens of thousands.

That's a lot of potential folks unknowingly passing along a disease via sex, blood or a mosquito biting them.

Even those who get tested must wait too long to know whether they are infected.

At a town hall meeting on Zika held this past week in Miami Beach, Joseph Magazine expressed frustration over testing. His wife, five months pregnant, was bitten by a mosquito and developed a rash. Tested more than three weeks ago at an area medical center, she was told it would take four to six weeks to get results, the Miami Herald reported.

"Unfortunately, Zika will be a national problem in the near future, and Miami will not be standing alone," Brickell Motors CEO Mario Murgado told the Herald. "My hope is that the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) will quickly step up efforts to mitigate and manage the problem."

That won't happen if the CDC lacks the money to make it happen. Congress adjourned this summer without reaching a deal on $1.1 billion in funding essential to fight the spread of Zika.

It would be too easy to condemn and ridicule Congress for its failure to fund the fight against Zika. We've witnessed such lunacy for years. You do have to wonder how severe any threat must become before partisan nonsense is set aside. Remember this in the voting booth come November.

Bug spray at theme parks? Waiting more than a month to know if you have been infected? Is that really the best response we can muster?

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] Follow @venturetampabay.

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