U.S. Surgeon General — and dad-to-be — Vivek Murthy paid a visit to his hometown Friday to drop by a medical clinic and reassure pregnant women as the number of local Miami Zika cases rose for a fourth straight day.
Murthy, who graduated from Palmetto Senior High and whose wife is expecting a baby in September, met with about a half dozen women at the Borinquen Medical Center in the Wynwood area, which has been the epicenter for the virus in Miami. Just hours after his visit, state health officials reported three more local cases, with two linked to the arts district cluster and a third in another area of the county.
With the total now reaching 28, South Florida has come under intense focus for its response to the only active transmission zone in the U.S., a one-square mile area just north of downtown.
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The Obama administration has redirected up to $81 million on Zika efforts, but Murthy complained that Congress needs to act more quickly to provide the $1.9 billion the president requested to speed up research on a vaccine that could take another 18 months to complete.
If we had a vaccine for Zika right now, we’d be in a very different place.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy
“This is not the ideal way to address a threat like Zika,” he said. “If we had a vaccine for Zika right now, we’d be in a very different place.”
In recent days, as the number of cases continues to rise daily, complaints have increased about the lack of information and whether efforts by local health and mosquito control officials are sufficient. Part of the response is complicated by the disease itself. It has been around for decades, but researchers are still trying to understand it. Four out of five people infected do not show symptoms and doctors only recently learned that in addition to transmission by mosquitoes, unprotected sex could also spread the disease.
The mosquitoes that carry the disease also make efforts difficult. The Aedes aegypti is an urban mosquito that lives among humans, aggressively breeds in tiny amounts of water and is active during the day when spraying is less effective.
Gov. Rick Scott, who set aside $26 million to combat the virus, has repeatedly complained that the federal government has not responded to his request for additional pregnancy kits after he vowed to provide free testing across the state. Scott also said he has not received instructions on how to coordinate with federal emergency managers.
But Murthy, who visited Puerto Rico Thursday where more than 10,000 people are infected, said the government has redirected $8 million to support Florida’s response as well as $27 million for emergency preparation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also ready to test patients if state labs get backed up and has sent workers to Miami-Dade County to investigate the outbreak, he said.
We’ve seen a lot of attention paid to this from a local level, a state level and a federal level but that doesn’t mean we can stop our efforts.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy
“What people should feel good about is there’s a lot happening right now,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of attention paid to this from a local level, a state level and a federal level but that doesn’t mean we can stop our efforts.”
Murthy, who moved to Miami when he was 3, said the public also needs to do its part to help out government efforts: dump stagnant water where mosquitoes breed and wear repellent.
Many of the women at the class, part of the Healthy Start Coalition that will manage county Zika pregnancies if any are reported, said they were unprepared to deal with the virus on top of the routine difficulties of pregnancy.
“If I need to be doing more, I’ll take whatever information I can get,” said Brittany Lorfils, 26, who is 11 weeks pregnant with her first child. Lorfils, like other women, knows a little but not a lot about the virus. She keeps a container of bug spray in her purse but didn’t know she could, or should, be tested for Zika.
“I really don’t know much about babies at all,” she said.
Another expectant mom, a 15-year-old attending with her mother, said she doesn’t wear bug spray because it smells bad. That attitude is what worries Healthy Start staff members, who gave the women bug lotion, mosquito nets, condoms and information about the virus.
Healthy Start CEO Manuel Fermin also said money could become an issue. The agency agreed Wednesday to manage the cases and provide services until newborns are signed up for a program at Jackson Memorial Hospital. But so far no new money has been set aside for what could become expensive care complicated by preterm delivery, stays in the NICU and debilitating birth defects.
Patients aren’t the only ones confused, he said. Last week, a doctor sent a pregnant woman who had just returned from the Dominican Republic and lives in the transmission zone to Healthy Start for testing.
“We do case management. We don’t do testing,” Fermin said. “The amount of basic questions is still surprising.”
In addition to the three new local cases, state health officials also reported 10 new travel-related cases, including the first in Sarasota County. Other cases include two in Miami-Dade, four in Orange and one each in Leon and Palm Beach Counties. The new patients also include a pregnant woman, the focus of Murthy’s visit. The state does not release information about where pregnant patients live.
“When I think about pregnant women I’ve met here in South Florida and in Puerto Rico, I think about my wife and the baby we’re going to have,” he said. “Every parent, no matter where they live or where they’re from, they want to do the best by their child. They want to make sure their child has an opportunity to live a healthy life from the very beginning. And that’s a responsibility all of us have as a society to make sure our kids have a good shot at life.”
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Zika cases by county since Aug. 12:
Number of Cases (all travel related)
Total cases not involving pregnant women
. . .
. . .
Cases involving pregnant women regardless of symptoms
* Counties of pregnant women not disclosed.
** Does not included suspected cases of local transmission.
Source: Florida Department of Health