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The location of Pinellas County's first local Zika case is a secret. Good idea or bad?

This 2016 digitally-colorized electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the Zika virus, in red, about 40 nanometers in diameter. Officials announced Pinellas County's first locally transmitted case of Zika on Aug. 23, but haven't said where the infected person was found. [CDC photo via AP]
Published Aug. 30, 2016

Maps issued by the Florida Department of Health pinpoint right down to street level where mosquitoes are spreading the Zika virus in South Florida.

But in Pinellas County, officials refuse to get any more specific than saying a single infection was found somewhere in the county's 280 square miles.

Surgeon General Celeste Philip said it makes no sense to divulge where the infected resident lives or works until officials can confirm the virus is being spread in those locations.

But that could take up to two weeks and leaves residents and local governments too much in the dark, say some local leaders. That includes U.S. Rep. David Jolly and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who say residents and local governments need more detailed information to prepare for a possible outbreak.

"When you drop something out there as broad as what they have done you create a significant concern in the community," Kriseman said. "I just don't understand. If you can't get specific, then why even say Pinellas county?"

It's a view shared by some but not all public health experts, who agree FDOH officials face a tough balancing act in giving people the information they need to make informed decisions about their safety while not inducing unnecessary panic. The privacy of the infected resident must also be protected, they said.

RELATED: Local leaders request permission to use genetically modified mosquitoes in Pinellas County

"This is a virus that is not transmitted easily but there are risks the public should be aware about," said Summer McGee, an associate professor in health care administration at the University of New Haven. "Knowing maybe the town, that might allow the public to feel a little more informed, more secure, without potentially harming any individual."

Guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the first locally transmitted case of Zika advise issuing a public alert and providing "timely, accurate and actionable" information.

But there is no specific guidance on how detailed that information should be, although a sample press release does advise informing the community that mosquitoes are spreading the virus.

Philip has stated that the Pinellas residents caught the virus from a mosquito bite but declined to confirm whether mosquitoes in the county may be infected.

A single case is not proof that the infection is spreading, officials said.

"If the department identifies an area of concern, we will notify the media and the public immediately," said Mara Gambineri, department communications director.

An estimated 400 people will be infected with the Zika virus by mosquitoes in Florida by mid-September, according to projections developed by an international team of scientists from the University of Florida and half a dozen other research institutions.

CDC principal deputy director Anne Schuchat described the Zika virus as unprecedented in that it can be spread both by mosquitoes and through sexual intercourse. Another complicating factor: Only one in five infected people exhibit symptoms.

While rarely fatal, Zika has been linked to microcephaly, a birth defect where a baby's head is smaller than normal and which is often accompanied by developmental issues. That makes it crucial that pregnant women and those planning a family know whether they need to change their daily routines and take extra precautions because the virus may be close by, McGee said.

"There is an extra layer of vulnerabilities because we're talking about pregnant women and unborn children," she said.

By not providing more accurate details about the location of infections, officials are risking a backlash if cases arise because residents did not know to avoid an area, said Peter Jacobson, professor of health law and policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

"This isn't just a mild flu virus," he said. "If the virus was to appear, people will ask, 'Why didn't you tell us where it is?'"

Gov. Rick Scott announced Aug. 23 that Pinellas had its first locally transmitted case. State and local health officials are conducting a door-to-door outreach effort and have tested people known to be in direct contact with the infected resident. Mosquito spraying in areas where the resident spent time outdoors was conducted on both sides of Tampa Bay.

But it may be up to two weeks before the state can confirm whether mosquitoes are actively spreading the disease locally.

The state's decision to limit information is the right one, said Mark Hart, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida who teaches health communication.

In addition to health risks, officials also have to consider the economic effects and well-being of a community in the information they release about infections, he said

Naming a neighborhood based solely on where an infected person lives would raise panic there while potentially giving other residents a false sense of security.

"Their job is to be the voice of definite facts balanced with scientifically gained knowledge," Hart said.

The health department has done a good job in making Floridians aware of Zika without creating a panic, he added.

"A year ago, not many people had heard of Zika," he said. "Most people in America now know what Zika is and how its contracted and some of the potential effects."

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

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