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Bay area Zika investigation closed with no further cases found

Surrounded by Hillsborough county and Florida state officials, Governor Rick Scott spoke to the media following a round table on the Zika virus on Aug. 24 at the Hillsborough County Health Department in Tampa. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times] 
Surrounded by Hillsborough county and Florida state officials, Governor Rick Scott spoke to the media following a round table on the Zika virus on Aug. 24 at the Hillsborough County Health Department in Tampa. [MONICA HERNDON | Times] 
Published Sep. 27, 2016

TAMPA — At least for now, Tampa Bay is considered officially Zika-free.

Florida Department of Health officials announced Tuesday that they have closed the active investigation into the region's first locally transmitted case of the virus that has been linked to birth defects.

The patient was a Tampa Fire Rescue firefighter who lived in Pinellas, triggering a scramble by health departments on both sides of the bay to contain a potential outbreak.

Since she had not traveled to areas where Zika is widespread, the infection was believed to be the result of a mosquito bite.

But testing of 70 people who had contact with the woman — including her immediate family and at least 25 co-workers — returned negative. That meant neither Pinellas nor Hillsborough met health department criteria to be classified as areas where active transmission is taking place, as occurred in Miami Beach and Miami's Wynwood neighborhood.

The investigation, which was announced as a Pinellas case by Gov. Rick Scott, took 35 days to conclude. Epidemiologists from both the Pinellas and Hillsborough health departments worked together and coordinated with county government mosquito spraying offices to spray and trap around the firefighter's home and workplace.

"Upon testing 70 close contacts and individuals from the community, we have found no additional positive cases," said department spokeswoman Mara Gambineri. "We will continue to be vigilant in our efforts to prevent the spread of Zika in Pinellas and other counties throughout Florida."

Trapped mosquitoes were tested at state Department of Agriculture labs. No mosquitoes caught in both Hillsborough or Pinellas tested positive for Zika, officials there said.

Still, the presence of the virus in the region triggered anxiety among some residents, with health clinics and some local gynecologists reporting an increase in testing requests from pregnant women and those planning to get pregnant.

The refusal of health officials to provide more specific details about where in Pinellas the infected woman lived was questioned by both U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Belleair Bluffs, and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who said that added to people's apprehension.

While the Pinellas case is now closed, Florida continues to record new cases of Zika virtually every day with the total number of infections statewide now topping 900.

That includes four new locally transmitted cases of Zika in Miami-Dade County that were confirmed on Tuesday.

Health officials are conducting active investigations into locally transmitted cases in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties and mosquitoes are believed to be spreading Zika in Miami Beach.

Last week, Scott announced he will use his emergency powers to allocate an extra $25 million to speed up the development of a Zika vaccine and "innovative, cost-effective" methods to test for the virus. He also made a recent trip to Washington, D.C., to lobby for more federal funding to fight Zika.

But on Tuesday, Democrats in the U.S. Senate blocked a bill that would have allocated $1.1 billion because the bill did not include money for Flint, Mich., to tackle its water contamination crisis.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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