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Gov. Scott: It's likely Florida just became the nation's Zika ground zero (w/video)

Times Staff Writers

Four people contracted Zika when they were bit by mosquitoes in Miami, Gov. Rick Scott announced Friday, making South Florida the epicenter of the virus in the United States.

"As we have anticipated, Zika is now here," said Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a conference call Friday.

Health officials said Zika will likely appear in other parts of Florida this year, including Tampa Bay.

"It's like predicting a hurricane," said Dennis Moore, director of the Pasco County Mosquito Control District. "Where is it going to strike? It's anyone's best guess."

Disease specialists have documented more than 1,600 Zika cases in the United States, but before Friday, all of them were found in people who came down with the virus after travelling abroad. Three men and a woman are thought to have contracted the disease recently in a dense one-square mile section of Miami north of downtown.

Scott said no mosquitoes in Florida have tested positive for Zika, even though the four latest patients probably were infected through bites.

The transmission area includes Wynwood, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood known for its art galleries, high-end bars and graffiti-covered walls. It also includes some of Edgewater, a residential neighborhood that has both single-family homes and high-rise condominiums.

The state will direct $1.28 million to the mosquito control districts in Miami-Dade and Broward counties through December, according to Scott's office. Already, he has used emergency powers to authorize $26.2 million for fighting Zika.

"Just like with a hurricane, we have worked hard to stay ahead of the spread of Zika and prepare for the worst, even as we hope for the best," the governor said in a statement.

Two mosquitoes, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, are known to carry Zika, and both appear in Florida. The virus is mostly spread by bites, but it can also be passed through sex. Many infected people show little to no symptoms, but in pregnant women, Zika can lead to brain-related birth defects for newborns. There is no vaccine.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration instructed blood centers in Miami-Dade and Broward to suspend collection until they could screen all blood for the virus. The agency recommended neighboring counties do the same.

In Tampa Bay, local mosquito control officials knew it was only a matter of time before a case of local transmission popped up in Florida. The state — wet, hot and prone to bugs — was long considered vulnerable to the disease.

Moore, from Pasco's mosquito control group, said Miami was susceptible because it is a travel hub to places in Central and South America, where Zika is already established. Orlando is another travel hot spot that could see local transmissions, he said, but the virus may show up in Tampa Bay, too.

Miami-Dade had reported 99 Zika cases as of Friday, the most in Florida, and Broward had 55. Orange County reported another 40. Hillsborough had 10, while Pinellas and Pasco had 7 and 6 respectively, all related to travel.

Tampa Bay was listed as one of nine spots in America that could host a large population of the mosquitoes that carry Zika in a study earlier this year.

Mosquito control officials have already increased trapping and spraying, and Moore said that effort will continue as the peak season for mosquitoes stretches into August and September.

"The environment is really ripe for this thing to take off," Moore said. If an outbreak were to develop in Florida, he said, it could have a devastating effect on tourism.

Infected mosquitoes from Miami will not travel to Tampa Bay on their own, however. The insects could theoretically hitch a ride to Tampa on luggage or in clothing, experts said, but they cannot fly very far. People can also spread the virus by traveling to and from transmission areas, and being bitten by local mosquitoes.

Health officials expect clusters of Zika cases to pop up elsewhere in Florida just like Miami, said Beata Casanas, an associate professor in the University of South Florida's Division of Infectious Disease & International Medicine.

"It's still no reason to panic," she said. "This is something we've been expecting. This is something we've been preparing for."

Casanas said the state has experience in fighting other mosquito-borne illnesses like Dengue Fever and Chikungunya Virus, both of which have spread locally in the Tampa Bay area. They will draw on those lessons to fight Zika.

If someone is found to have Zika in Tampa Bay, Casanas said, doctors will ask them to stay inside for three weeks to avoid being bitten and possibly infecting new mosquitoes. Local officials will also spray everywhere within a mile of that person's home to try to kill as many mosquitoes as possible.

In Miami, public health officials are going door-to-door to speak with residents about Zika testing. They are offering blood testing within the immediate area where the state believes the transmissions occurred.

Health officials say the best way to combat Zika is to follow standard advice for avoiding mosquitoes. Use repellent, wear long sleeves, stay indoors and drain and cover containers that hold water where mosquitoes can breed.

"Mosquito repellent is almost going to be a necessity in 2016," said Ron Montgomery, operations manager for Hillsborough County Mosquito and Aquatic Weed Control.

Meanwhile, local politicians are fighting for more federal funds to address Zika. Senate Democrats blocked more than $1 billion in funding for prevention efforts last month, saying that Republicans had filled a bill with partisan add-ons.

Frieden, from the CDC, said more money would help specialists combat Zika's spread.

"We are doing the best we can with the resources we have available to us," he said.

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Sarasota Republican, called for more federal resources Friday.

"Millions of Floridians — and Americans at large — are at risk as the hot summer months roll on and mosquitoes continue to spread," he said in a statement.

"Florida," Buchanan said, "is ground zero for Zika."

Information from the Miami Herald and the Associated Press was used in this report. Times staff writer Kathleen McGrory contributed. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampaby.com or (727) 893-8804. Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com.

Gov. Rick Scott speaks at a news conference Friday in Orlando, where he announced that the state likely has the first cases of Zika transmitted by mosquitoes on the U.S. mainland. [Associated Press]

Gov. Rick Scott speaks at a news conference Friday in Orlando, where he announced that the state likely has the first cases of Zika transmitted by mosquitoes on the U.S. mainland. [Associated Press]

Gov. Scott: It's likely Florida just became the nation's Zika ground zero (w/video) 07/29/16 [Last modified: Friday, July 29, 2016 6:33pm]
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