TAMPA — In Carlos Fernandes' nearly 11 years in mosquito control, Hillsborough County has never prepared for the warm season quite like this year.
The threat of Zika virus, which can cause birth defects when a pregnant mother is infected, has led to a surge in funding and training around the county.
"We are preparing ourselves for the worst and hoping for the best," said Fernandes, director of Hillsborough County Mosquito and Aquatic Weed Control.
By last week, health officials had confirmed three cases of Zika in Hillsborough, all in people who contracted the virus elsewhere and traveled to Florida. There were no known cases of a mosquito in Tampa Bay carrying the virus and transmitting it to a person through a bite.
The region, however, is home to both species of mosquito that are known to carry Zika — Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus — our warm, wet climate making it a good environment for the insects.
"We have the mosquitoes," Fernandes said. "What we do not have at this point in time is the virus."
County officials are not waiting around for it.
Fernandes said his department has received an additional $150,000 this year. Staffers are training 60 extra public works employees to support the 11 inspectors who work in Hillsborough, trapping the insects, monitoring illnesses and controlling the mosquito population.
Some of the extra money helped purchase 20 new traps, called BG-Sentinels, which Fernandes said are highly effective.
As of Tuesday, he said, there were 65 traditional traps, known as CDC light traps, around the county and 19 BG-Sentinel traps (one was stolen). The county uses dry ice, which mimics the carbon dioxide that comes off the human body, to attract mosquitoes.
Additional funds, Fernandes said, are in reserve in case Zika appears in greater numbers in Hillsborough.
Florida's warm, wet summer provides a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. Pooled rainwater offers a place to lay eggs, and the heat increases the speed of a mosquito's maturation, Fernandes said.
There have been 102 confirmed cases of Zika in Florida to date, according to the state Department of Health. All of them are related to travel, not local bites. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Zika can lead to fevers, rashes and joint pain. It is transmitted through mosquito bites or sex, and can cause babies to be born with smaller heads and brains.
The virus has been around since at least the 1940s, according to the CDC, but it has broken out more recently in a number of places, including Brazil. In February, the World Health Organization declared the virus an international public health emergency.
Locally, Gov. Rick Scott ordered state officials in the same month to declare public health emergencies in counties with confirmed Zika cases. In Hillsborough, the county vowed to ramp up spraying if mosquito populations rise.
Fernandes said Zika can emerge quickly. A carrier could move to the area and be bitten, or infected mosquitoes might come over in luggage or boxes.
"It can be from something very innocent," he said.
For residents, he said, old advice still applies: Cover exposed skin and eliminate any standing water around homes.
For more information, call the Zika hotline, toll-free at 1-855-622-6735.
Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.