Mosquitoes are no longer spreading Zika on South Beach, Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared Friday from the rooftop of an Ocean Drive hotel, where he announced that state health officials have lifted a four-month-old warning over the final hot spot in the state with an outbreak of the virus.
Surrounded by local tourism boosters, business owners and elected officials, Scott proclaimed, “We’re going to make sure everybody knows that this state is open for business” — a message met with resounding applause
“Tourists want to come here. People want to build their businesses here,” he said.
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Yet amid the celebratory atmosphere at the oceanfront press conference, state health officials urged Floridians not to let down their guard against the mosquito-borne and sexually transmitted virus because local infections continue to occur, though less intensely.
“We must remain on alert,” said State Surgeon General Celeste Philip, “and continue all of the protective efforts that have led to this success.”
The months-long campaign by state, local and federal officials to reduce the spread of Zika in Miami-Dade required armies of ground inspectors, repeated rounds of aerial spraying, and public education efforts. But the virus’s spread also has slowed as the weather in South Florida cools and humidity drops — conditions that naturally inhibit mosquitoes.
Zika, Philip and others noted, is likely to resurface by spring. In the meantime, she said, “We will continue to see isolated cases.”
249 Locally transmitted Zika infections in Florida as of Dec. 8
Still, the announcement made Friday morning atop the Betsy Hotel marked the end of a five-month period in which local outbreaks led to alarming warnings that pregnant women should avoid designated zones of “active transmission” in Miami and Miami Beach.
Zika infection during pregnancy is a known cause of microcephaly and other serious congenital brain abnormalities, including birth defects related to central nervous system damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The federal agency adjusted its advisory for Miami-Dade to reflect that South Beach is no longer an “active transmission” zone. However, the CDC continues to designate all of Miami-Dade as a “cautionary area” where the virus is still spreading, though at a lower intensity.
The agency continues to advise that pregnant women consider postponing travel to all parts of Miami-Dade.
Also announced Friday: an additional $4.9 million in federal funding for Florida from the CDC. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who called for increased funding, applauded the boost.
“As the state most impacted and threatened by Zika, Florida deserves a greater share of the federal resources available,” she said.
State health officials lifted the “active transmission” warning in South Beach on Friday after meeting the CDC’s standard of 45 days without a new Zika infection inside of the designated 1.5-square-mile area between Eighth and 28th Streets from the ocean to the bay.
That zone and three others areas — including sections of Miami’s Wynwood and Little River neighborhoods and most of the northern section of Miami Beach — were identified as active Zika zones after state health officials confirmed that two or more people from different households had acquired the virus within one square mile of each other and more than two weeks apart (after travel and sexual transmission had been ruled out).
Philip said although Miami-Dade has hit a milestone on battling the mosquito-spread Zika, people need to continue to wear mosquito repellent and drain standing water where the insects breed.
Officials have already acknowledged that higher concentrations of locally transmitted Zika infections could return in 2017, partly due to the abundance of travel between Miami and places where the virus is widespread, such as Brazil and Puerto Rico.
As local and state health officials prepare for the likely return of Zika with warmer, wetter weather, they also will consider providing more information to the public identifying the locations of isolated infections and travel-related cases.
Lillian Rivera, director of Miami-Dade’s health department, told the Miami Herald that officials are discussing a new reporting model that will work within health privacy laws.
“We want to be more transparent,” she said.
As of Wednesday, the Florida Department of Health was still conducting 11 epidemiological investigations into local Zika infections, including seven cases in Miami-Dade.
As of Friday, a total of 236 cases resulted from exposure in Miami-Dade, according to the health department. Of those, 107 have occurred outside of the previously active transmission zones in Wynwood, Little River and Miami Beach.
We have seen many isolated cases, and that’s not unusual. We will probably continue to see more.
Florida Surgeon General Celeste Philip
Of the nearly 250 locally transmitted cases in Florida, more than 222 were linked to Miami-Dade, according to the health department. Miami-Dade also has reported 307 travel-related cases this year.
And as long as Miami-Dade continues to host travelers from countries where Zika is widespread, the risk of local transmission will continue, Philip said.
“We will continue to see travelers bring Zika into our state,” she said. And in Miami-Dade, where more than 90 Zika infections have been documented outside of the four designated zones, Philip said, “We will continue to see isolated cases.”
For the past nearly five months, Miami-Dade was the only county in the nation identified as having active spread of Zika by mosquitoes.
Local cases were recently confirmed for the first time in Texas. On Friday, Texas health officials reported four locally acquired infections near each other in Cameron County.
As Zika in Florida progressed from a travel-related disease to a locally transmitted one, Miami-Dade mosquito control has scrambled to catch up.
At the beginning of the year, the county had a mosquito control budget of $1.68 million that included a fleet of 10 trucks, 17 workers who inspect for mosquitoes and respond to service calls, and aerial spraying under contract with the U.S. Air Force and private vendors.
Deputy Mayor Alina Hudak said Friday that the county has spent about $22 million so far fighting Zika — primarily to hire additional mosquito control inspectors and workers, to pay for insecticides, equipment and public education campaigns.
Hudak said Florida has sent the county about $12 million to date to offset the extra expense. The remainder will be made up with additional state and federal grants, she said, as well as an undetermined amount of general revenue from Miami-Dade.
Not only was the county’s mosquito control department underfunded to take on Zika, there was also a lot of uncertainty about the best approach to knocking down the mosquito population.
“Experts had doubts about what would or wouldn’t work,” she said.
In Wynwood, however, the county — which is in charge of local mosquito control — in partnership with the state and CDC landed on an effective approach that combined aerial spraying of larvicide to kill mosquito eggs with insecticides to kill adults.
The county’s Zika response peaked in August and September, Hudak said, when more than 170 two-man crews of privately contracted mosquito control workers were on the ground in Miami-Dade.
This week, about 40 crews of contracted mosquito control workers continue to inspect properties for breeding grounds and respond to health department referrals and calls from residents.
“We’re going to stay very vigilant,” Hudak said.
State Rep. David Richardson said he met with Ocean Drive business owners about a week ago, and they reported to him that their revenues were down by about 25 percent this year, a decline they attribute to Zika.
He said Ocean Drive business owners also want to approach the health department about whether the area should even be considered a Zika zone because of the windy conditions and other inhospitable elements for mosquitoes.
“They feel mosquitoes don’t live on the beach,” he said.