Saturday, December 16, 2017
Health

National effort fights screwworm outbreak

Since news broke last month of a New World screwworm outbreak in the Florida Keys, aggressive efforts have been taken to fix the crisis.

Behind the scenes are workers from state and federal agencies who have traveled to the Lower Keys from all over the United States. Some are living at the Hyatt Place Faro Blanco Resort and Yacht Club and the Holiday Inn Express in Marathon for weeks at a time, organizing the moving parts of the eradication effort around the clock.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture set up its command center in a former passenger departure area at Florida Keys Marathon International Airport.

There, multiple people quietly work behind laptop computers like Amy Sepero, chief of logistics who works for the state Department of Agriculture. One of 88 workers from multiple agencies on a rotating schedule, she's from North Florida and has been working at the airport since Oct. 26. She will leave by Nov. 15, when someone else steps in to her position and continues the cycle.

Sepero's job is to coordinate equipment, like the transport of millions of sterile screwworm flies from Panama that have been released in the Lower Keys every Tuesday and Thursday since Oct. 11. There are 25 locations in the Lower Keys and four in Marathon where sterile screwworm flies are released to mate with wild flies to produce offspring that never hatch.

The parasitic screwworms kill their victims by burrowing into and feeding on live tissue.

Jessica Gabbard is from Heflin, Ala. She arrived in Marathon on Oct. 19 and will leave Nov. 16. She compiles data from the field, such as how many screwworm flies are being released and where, and how many people are working on the National Key Deer Refuge. She makes their schedules and provides information to Pam Manns, public information officer, who can then provide it to the media.

"I'm collecting documentation today for what the different agencies will be doing tomorrow," Gabbard said Thursday.

Among the 88 workers in the Keys are 43 officers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Wildlife Refuge System. They are working at the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key and surrounding islands.

"It's so impressive," said Kevin Lowry, public information officer. "We have staff that have come from Minnesota, Mississippi, Michigan, Iowa, Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee, a bunch from Florida and one from Puerto Rico."

The workers are a combination of biologists and veterinarians who are treating deer, performing research and informing the public about the screwworm outbreak. There are also workers from the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"There is a tremendous amount of different roles everyone is taking on to make sure things run smoothly," Lowry said.

Additionally, there are more than 170 volunteers in the Lower Keys treating deer with antiparasitic medication as a preventive measure and to treat screwworm.

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