Gov. Rick Scott has worked hard to keep the spread of the Zika virus in the news and on Floridians' minds. He has visited affected areas, held roundtables with local health officials and bashed Congress for failing to approve funding to deal with the outbreak. And yet the governor and the Florida Department of Health consistently refuse to release basic information. Now Scott's omission du jour hits home: He won't say where in Pinellas County a locally transmitted case of Zika has been confirmed. A public health scare is no time to leave out the details. Scott needs to provide residents with basic information to ease their concerns, not withhold information and spread apprehension.
Zika, which can be spread through sexual contact or mosquito bites, arrived in Florida months ago, brought by travelers who were infected in viral hot spots. Health officials warned it was only a matter of time before the virus would begin to spread locally, and they have been proven right. In late July, four people in a neighborhood near downtown Miami were infected by mosquitoes. Within a month, the virus was spreading on Miami Beach. This week, Pinellas had its first locally transmitted case. Health officials said their investigation would extend into Hillsborough County, where the patient works, and that targeted mosquito spraying would begin in undisclosed locations in Pinellas and Hillsborough. According to Scott, that's all Tampa Bay residents need to know.
Health officials say they will pinpoint the new Pinellas case only if more cases are discovered. In the next breath, they acknowledge it could take up to two weeks to confirm whether the virus is spreading locally. In densely populated Pinellas, that potentially exposes to infection thousands of people who could unknowingly be in a transmission zone. State health officials waited 11 days after the first non-travel-related cases were confirmed in Miami before notifying the public that mosquitoes were spreading the virus there. With the virus emerging in new areas, health officials should be erring on the side of more rapid disclosure.
State Surgeon General Celeste Philip argued that releasing where the patient lives could sow confusion if that site is different from where the person was infected. In that case, health officials should disclose where the infection most likely occurred and where the patient generally lives. It's understandable that Scott and Philip want to prevent unnecessary panic, but information that can affect so many people's health is not theirs to withhold.
The lack of candor is all the more unsettling given how much is unknown about the virus itself. Most people who contract Zika develop no symptoms and never know they've been infected. The virus, first discovered in 1947, was not previously known to be sexually transmitted. But the current outbreak includes sexually transmitted cases, and doctors can't say how long the virus stays in the body. Most frightening of all are the devastating defects Zika can cause in developing fetuses. That threat is serious enough that pregnant women have been cautioned not to travel to Miami Beach. But pregnant women and couples trying to become pregnant in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties have no way to know what areas to avoid.
Scott has made public awareness central to his efforts to contain Zika. It's disingenuous for him to then refuse to give Floridians basic information about where the virus has emerged. Tampa Bay residents need to know the general location of the new case — if not the specific neighborhood then at least the city. U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Belleair Bluffs, has reasonably called on state and federal officials to disclose that much. Zika is scary enough. The public's sense of safety is further undermined when leaders withhold information that could keep them safe.