Advertisement
  1. Health

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

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]
Published Jul. 29, 2016

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.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. FILE - In this Feb. 20, 2014, file photo, a patron exhales vapor from an e-cigarette at a store in New York. Under the Trump administration, former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb kicked off his tenure in 2017 with the goal of making cigarettes less addictive by drastically cutting nicotine levels. He also rebooted the agency’s effort to ban menthol flavoring in cigarettes. But those efforts have been largely eclipsed by the need to respond to an unexpected explosion in e-cigarette use by teens. AP
    Hundreds of people nationwide have come down with lung illness related to vaping.
  2. This May 2018, photo provided by Joseph Jenkins shows his son, Jay, in the emergency room of the Lexington Medical Center in Lexington, S.C. Jay Jenkins suffered acute respiratory failure and drifted into a coma, according to his medical records, after he says he vaped a product labeled as a smokable form of the cannabis extract CBD. Lab testing commissioned as part of an Associated Press investigation into CBD vapes showed the cartridge that Jenkins says he puffed contained a synthetic marijuana compound blamed for at least 11 deaths in Europe. JOSEPH JENKINS  |  AP
    The vapor that Jenkins inhaled didn’t relax him. After two puffs, he ended up in a coma.
  3. H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute is the centerpiece of Project Arthur, an 800-acre corporate park that could include up 24 million square feet of office and industrial space on nearly 7,000 acres of what is now ranch land, but targeted for development in central Pasco. Times
    The H. Lee Moffitt facility is the centerpiece of an economic development effort in a proposed 800-acre corporate park.
  4. Taylor Bland-Ball, 22, posted this photo and open letter to Judge Thomas Palermo to her Instagram account on September 10, the day after she lost custody of her 4-year-old son Noah McAdams. The boy's parents wanted to treat his leukemia with natural health care remedies instead of chemotherapy. [Instagram] ANASTASIA DAWSON  |  Instagram
    The couple refused chemotherapy for their son, instead seeking alternative treatments including dietary plans, alkaline water and THC and CBD oil treatments
  5. Sharon Hayes, the new chief executive officer at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, says she will draw on her roots in nursing as she engineers a turnaround for the hospital. SCOTT KEELER  |   Times
    The city’s largest hospital has suffered setbacks under a corporate owner, but a new leader says it’s time for an infusion of “love and attention.”
  6. An architect's rendering shows part of a planned research center and hospital on N McKinley Drive in Tampa for the Moffitt Cancer Center. During the 2020 legislative session in Tallahassee, the center will seek an increased share of Florida's cigarette tax to finance the McKinley Drive project and other improvements. Moffitt officials said Thursday that the increase initially would finance $205 million, to be paired with $332 million they have already allocated for the project. Moffitt Cancer Center
    Florida lawmakers are the key to unlocking the money, which would pay for more hospital beds and research space.
  7. Ashlynn NesSmith, 16, with her mother, Erin NesSmith, at Thursday's news conference in Tampa about the dangers of vaping. MARLENE SOKOL  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The legislation discussed in Tampa is ‘aimed at saving lives and addressing the current vaping health crisis.’
  8. FILE - In this Feb. 20, 2014 file photo, a liquid nicotine solution is poured into a vaping device at a store in New York. In September 2019, U.S. health officials are investigating what might be causing hundreds of serious breathing illnesses in people who use e-cigarettes and other vaping devices. They have identified about 450 possible cases in 33 states, including six deaths. FRANK FRANKLIN II  |  AP
    U.S. health officials have identified about 450 possible cases in 33 states, including six deaths.
  9. The owners of Centurion Compounding of Wesley Chapel have pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiring to commit health care fraud with the owners of the now-closed Lifecare Pharmacy in St. Petersburg (shown here) and Dr. Anthony Baldizzi of Tierra Verde. Google street view
    Centurion Compounding owners Frank Monte and Kimberly Anderson used profits from the conspiracy to buy real estate and high-end sports cars.
  10. A rendering of the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Health Institute, which is expected to open in January. School officials said Tuesday the project will cost an additional $16 million. [Courtesy of Strategic Property Partners]
    School trustees asked for a breakdown of expenses before approving the increase.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement