A fiery public debate Wednesday about the use of aerial spraying to kill mosquitoes carrying Zika virus in South Beach raged from a protest outside City Hall to a rowdy public meeting inside and prompted Miami-Dade officials to delay the start of spraying — but only by 24 hours.
Spraying of the insecticide naled will begin before sunrise Friday, then continue on each of the next three Sundays.
“The protocol didn’t change,” said Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez after he faced a chamber packed with angry residents who maintained that naled poses a greater threat to the public than the Zika virus. “We just delayed it one more day to give the city of Miami Beach more time to notify their residents.”
With efforts mounting in Miami Beach, Gimenez said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to lift the travel advisory for the Wynwood area later this month if no new locally-transmitted cases are found. The advisories are supposed to last 45 days after the last local transmission, and Gimenez said that milestone arrives Sept. 19.
Deputy Mayor Alina Hudak, who is heading up the mosquito-control efforts, said Aug. 5 is the last time the CDC pegged a Zika transmission to the Wynwood zone. For the Miami Beach zone, the 45-day countdown is pegged to Aug. 27, she said. However, a new case could reset the 45-day counter and stretch the advisory well into the fall, at least. “We’re praying,” Hudak said.
Before Wednesday’s public workshop on naled, people carrying signs — and some of them wearing gas masks or hazmat suits — protested Gimenez’s decision to start aerial spraying over Miami Beach on Thursday, a decision he made based on a recommendation from federal and state authorities.
Miami-Dade County will begin aerial spraying of insecticide between 5 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. on Friday instead of Thursday
“We are more afraid of this than we are of Zika,” said Liza Samuel, South Beach resident and mother of three, adding that she would rather have the choice of dressing her kids in long sleeves and dousing with them with repellant than be forced to live with overhead spraying.
Samuel and hundreds of others expressed their dismay when Gimenez addressed the crowd at the workshop, a quickly-organized information session where the City Commission could ask questions of health and mosquito control officials but could not take action.
“I don’t particularly want to do this,” said Gimenez, who the crowd repeatedly jeered. “We tried everything to not to get to this point.”
Gimenez also said Gov. Rick Scott, at the urging of Florida Surgeon General Celeste Philip, had wanted to begin spraying during the Labor Day weekend. According to the county attorney’s office, Scott has the power to conduct spraying without the county’s blessing.
Gimenez asked the state to hold off and watch mosquito counts. When those counts increased, Gimenez made the call to start spraying this week.
Wednesday’s workshop, attended by more than 200 people, illustrated a deep mistrust of the government and public health officials on the safety of naled. Use of the controversial insecticide has drawn criticism from anti-pesticide groups and some scientists who point to studies that suggest it could harm people.
Those concerned about the health impacts of naled, including people who are sensitive to chemicals, are advised to stay indoors for an hour after the spraying. Planes will fly about 300 feet over the ocean between 5 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. and use offshore winds to carry the spray droplets onto the island. The target area is between Eighth and 28th Streets, from the ocean to Biscayne Bay.
“You’re not going to blanket the city with a known neurotoxin,” said Tamara Schwartz, a South Beach resident.
Kate Moffat, said she worried she wouldn’t be able to take her children and pet to the park after the area was misted with naled.
“I think naled is a much bigger threat than Zika,” she said, hugging her son, Moon.
Mayor Philip Levine said while he wishes the city could avoid spraying, “We have a greater concern and it’s called Zika, and Zika has spread. We don’t want Miami Beach to be the gateway for Zika across our country.”
Several people questioned the virus’ link to birth defects like microcephaly. Some say the concerns over the virus are overblown.
“It’s not scientifically proven,” someone in the crowd shouted.
Dr. Christine Curry, an OB-GYN with the University of Miami Health System, told the audience about working with women who are Zika-positive and delivering some of their children — in one case, a baby with microcephaly.
She urged everyone to weigh the risks of naled and Zika carefully.
“Zika is a thing. Zika is real,” she said. “And while we don’t understand it fully, that is not a reason to dismiss its impact.”
Commissioner Michael Grieco, who opposes the spraying, was disappointed with the move to start Friday and the tenor of Wednesday’s workshop. He wanted to delay the spraying longer and bring in naled critics to offer a different perspective.
“I don’t know if we did anything to alleviate that distrust when we saw a string of experts rolled out by the government only expressing one side of things,” he told the Miami Herald.
The public’s frustration stems from a process that has been, at times, clumsy when relaying public health information to the public.
The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control previously ruled out aerial spraying in South Beach, saying it was infeasible with the dense urban environment and high-rise buildings. But after an uptick in mosquito counts over Labor Day weekend, the CDC said aerial spraying would be the most effective way to quickly control the Beach’s mosquito population.
“The dense urban environment presents a challenge for aerial spraying in Miami Beach. However, given the urgent need to protect pregnant women from Zika, every tool to combat the virus should be considered,” said Tom Frieden, CDC director, in a statement provided to the Herald late Tuesday.
He also insisted the spraying in small doses is safe.
“When aerial spraying is conducted correctly, it is safe, effective at controlling mosquitoes, and not associated with health risks to people or pets,” he said.
Jeffrey Bernstein, a medical toxicologist who is medical director for the state’s local Poison Control Center, said naled is a poison but like any poison, exposure and dose determine whether it’s a serious threat. A father of three who lives in the Beach and who suspects the spraying won’t successfully knock down mosquitoes, he said he would still rather see the county try aerial treatment.
“I also don’t want them exposed to DEET three times a day. That’s also a poison,” he said. “It’s a matter of balancing risk.”
Wednesday’s public outcry outstripped the smaller response to aerial spraying of Wynwood about a month ago. But Gimenez was hopeful that Wynwood’s travel advisory will be canceled next week.
Also Wednesday, the Florida Department of Health announced 19 new travel-related cases of Zika, including 11 in Miami-Dade and four in Broward County but no new locally-transmitted cases.
Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.