In February, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson became one of the first voices in Washington to warn against the threat posed by Zika. He wanted the Obama administration to appoint a “Zika czar” to coordinate the government’s response to the virus. Unfortunately, few listened. Many even scoffed at what they considered his unduly alarmist outlook.
At the time of Sen. Nelson’s warning, Florida had nine reported cases of Zika. Today, the latest confirmed number by the Florida Department of Health is 120. The number in Miami-Dade County, which leads the state, is 45. And this is before the arrival of summer, when rainy weather and warmer temperatures ensure a wider and more rapid spread of the mosquito-borne virus.
It’s going to get worse before it gets better. The danger that Sen. Nelson presciently warned against last winter has arrived and the numbers are spiking. More Floridians will be exposed to Zika and more will become infected.
And still, amazingly, there are those in Congress who refuse to take the threat seriously.
On Tuesday, the Senate advanced a $1.1 billion measure to fight Zika by a bipartisan vote of 68-29. It was considerably less than the $1.9 billion that Sen. Nelson and his Republican counterpart from Florida, Sen. Marco Rubio, wanted, yet nearly twice as much as the inadequate $622 million plan proposed by Republicans in the House.
“Quite frankly, that’s not going to cut it,” Sen. Rubio said during the Senate debate on Tuesday, when he warned House members that they were “playing with fire” by lowballing the government’s response.
He’s right. The lower number will slow the testing of a vaccine, underfund mosquito control, and will fail to provide enough aid to battle Zika overseas.
The latter provision is particularly important for Florida because so many travelers to and from infected regions in Latin America and the Caribbean — including the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, where the virus has struck hard — pass through Florida, or stay here. All of the reported cases in Florida are travel-associated.
Frankly, we find the entire debate baffling. Disease is not a partisan issue. The risk to the public, particularly in vulnerable states like Florida, is demonstrably significant, and local and state governments need the kind of help that only the federal government can provide.
This is no time for penny-pinching. Even the Senate’s top Republican, Sen. Mitch McConnell, approved the $1.1 billion bipartisan version, calling it “a targeted approach that focuses on immediate needs while also providing resources for longer-term goals like a vaccine.”
Yet in the House, GOP leaders like Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin insist that the bill must carry offsetting spending cuts, whereas the Senate bill is financed as emergency legislation not subject to budget limits.
The Centers for Disease Control, which has a comprehensive report on the status of Zika and how to protect against it, has mapped out a plan to develop a vaccine and fight the virus through other measures, but they cannot complete the plan without adequate funding.
The Florida Congressional delegation in the House must show unity to push for a higher funding bill. As Sen. Rubio said in his plea on the Senate floor, get this right. Deal with it now, deal with it fully. Otherwise, lawmakers will be back later this summer to offer excuses about why they failed to do the right thing when they had the chance.