Miami Beach residents living and working near four sites where traps captured Zika-positive mosquitoes in August and September said public health officials didn’t tell them until Wednesday — after the Miami Herald sued to get the locations — that the traps were as close as their back yards and school yards, potentially upping their risk.
“I feel it was a real failure of communication,” said Galen Treuer, 37, a student at the University of Miami who lives at 1236 Drexel Ave., one of four Miami Beach addresses identified Wednesday by Miami-Dade mosquito control officials. “They weren’t giving out information to reduce our exposure.”
Paola Castro, a 33-year-old who lives in an apartment building at another of the sites — 1619 Meridian Ave., just south of Lincoln Road Mall — said she would have liked to have known, too. “That’s information they should say immediately, so people can take precautions, like not dressing in black and wearing repellent,” she said.
Nearly all of the locations in Miami Beach where traps captured mosquitoes carrying Zika virus are in residential areas, though some are next to schools and near tourist destinations. The county identified four addresses in South Beach after the Miami Herald filed a lawsuit against Miami-Dade seeking the locations.
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In addition to the Drexel Avenue and Meridian Avenue sites, the county said the Zika-carrying mosquitoes were trapped at 932 Lenox Ave., a yellow, two-story townhouse on a residential block, and 2378 Prairie Ave., a single-family home across the street from Miami Beach Senior High and near Hebrew Academy’s Rabbi Alexander Gross High School, the Miami Beach Golf Club and the Bayshore Municipal Golf Course.
A fifth site — Miami Beach Botanical Garden at 2000 Convention Center Dr. — was identified on Sept. 1, when Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services first announced that traps had captured mosquitoes carrying Zika. However, the garden had been closed three days prior to the announcement.
The mosquitoes trapped at the five locations tested positive for Zika in late August and early September. But subsequent samples captured at the same sites have been negative for the virus, Miami-Dade officials said.
On Wednesday morning, county mosquito control and Florida Department of Health workers fanned out across South Beach to notify residents before releasing the addresses. Residents said health department workers handed them plastic bags containing mosquito bite prevention pamphlets, repellent wipes and other supplies.
Treuer said he had a conversation with Lillian Rivera, director of the state health department’s offices in Miami-Dade, and that she promised improvement in the agency’s communications.
“She said they were going to do better in the future,” Treuer said. “But she didn’t explain why they hadn’t told us.”
Many of those who live or work near the sites said they had not been using repellent regularly or taking other precautions, such as wearing long sleeves and pants — even as the number of mosquito-borne infections has been rising.
The health department reported eight new local cases on Wednesday, including six in Miami-Dade.
A total of 921 people in Florida have contracted Zika this year, with 792 travel-related infections — including 92 pregnant women — and 128 local infections. Health officials created a new category, “undetermined,” Wednesday for a single case.
“It concerns me, and I’m pretty sure it concerns everyone else,” said Alex Flores, 40, a restaurant marketing agent who works on the 1200 block of Drexel Avenue, a few doors from one of the trap locations. “I’m not even wearing protection. Now, I’m going upstairs to put some spray on.”
A resident of a yellow townhouse next door to the Lenox Avenue site, who would only give her name as Lauren S., said she knew health officials had placed a mosquito trap in the back yard in mid-August. But it wasn’t until Wednesday — a month later — that the 32-year-old learned they had captured mosquitoes that tested positive for Zika virus on Aug. 22.
“Their withholding information was a disadvantage to the residents of Miami Beach,” she said.
The woman said she plans to get tested for Zika now. “I was disappointed,” she said. “They said I shouldn’t have gotten mosquito bites, but I have been bitten. If they would have told us earlier, it would have been much better.”
Asked why residents had not been informed earlier about their proximity to Zika mosquitoes, Mara Gambineri, a health department spokeswoman, said the responsibility to inform the public rested with Miami-Dade government.
“That would be on mosquito control,” she said, “because they placed the traps there.”
But Gayle Love, senior division director for Miami-Dade’s Solid Waste Management Department, which includes mosquito control, said county officials had kept the information secret at the state health agency’s request.
“Mayor Carlos Gimenez has indicated that going forward, the county will notify property owners, and anyone else who inquires, about the location of Zika-positive mosquito pools,” Love said in a written statement.
Love said that although Miami-Dade had not told residents about the infected mosquitoes’s proximity to their homes and workplaces, county inspectors treated storm drains in the areas, reduced breeding sites and sprayed insecticides using trucks and backpack foggers.
In addition, Love said, the health department stepped up efforts to raise awareness in the community.
At the two-story pink Mediterranean-style house on 2378 Prairie Ave. — next door to Miami Beach Senior High — an artist working there said that county workers had placed three mosquito traps in the back yard and side of the home about two months ago.
Gian Bruno Hass, 59, said his brother-in-law owns the house. “I think the government should have enlightened us,” he said.
Miami-Dade School District officials said they were first notified on Wednesday morning that Zika-positive mosquitoes had been captured near Beach High, but that the news likely would not have changed the approach they have already taken.
“We’ve been very proactive, monitoring very aggressively any standing water,” said Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, a school district spokeswoman. “We’ve been communicating with parents and encouraging students to wear protective clothing. We’ve really, really stressed that.”
Still, Gonzalez-Diego said, the school district placed automated phone calls Wednesday to parents of the estimated 6,500 students enrolled in public schools on Miami Beach to inform them of the news.
Even at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, the only site previously identified as having Zika-positive mosquitoes, visitors said they were unaware of the threat — especially since there are no public warnings in sight.
“They need to at least post a sign at the entrance that people can see,” said Ruben Pena, 20, a student who lives in Miami.
Nico Schubert, 26, of Cologne, Germany, was walking through the garden on Wednesday shirtless and wearing only gym shorts, sneakers and a Boston Red Sox baseball cap. Asked if he was concerned about mosquitoes spreading Zika, Schubert said, “Not very much.”
His mother, Regine Schubert, 58, is a biologist and said she, too, was not worried. She had not sprayed repellent on herself or taken other precautions against mosquito bites.
“I don’t think I’m pregnant,” she said.
That’s information they should say immediately, so people can take precautions.
Paola Castro, Miami Beach resident
Some Miami Beach residents also said they were not very concerned to find that Zika-positive mosquitoes had been captured in their yards or nearby.
Sture Ostensson, 72, who lives at 1619 Meridian Ave., said he had noticed mosquito control workers at the property almost daily. The county’s mosquito trap is directly outside his front door.
Ostensson said he was not home Wednesday morning when officials knocked on his door to alert him, but they left a plastic bag with pamphlets and repellent wipes hanging on his door knob.
“I figured if they catch something, they would tell me,” he said after learning the news.
The state agriculture department first announced that three of 19 mosquito traps in Miami Beach had captured Zika-positive mosquitoes on Sept. 1. A fourth batch was announced on Sept. 9, and a fifth on Sept. 16.
All of the infected mosquitoes were captured inside the 1.5-square-mile area initially identified on Aug. 19 as having active spread of the virus, between Eighth and 28th Streets from the ocean to the bay. The transmission zone was expanded north on Sept. 16 to a 4.5-square-mile area, covering nearly all of South Beach and Mid Beach, from Eighth Street to 63rd Street.
Locations of Zika-positive mosquitoes were released after the Herald’s lawsuit set off a dispute between the county and the state health department about releasing the information. The county initially denied the Herald’s public records requests, claiming the records were exempt from Florida’s public records law because they were part of an epidemiological investigation.
But Tuesday, Miami-Dade Mayor Gimenez sent a letter to State Surgeon General Celeste Philip advising her that the county would release the locations unless otherwise instructed by the health department in writing. Both Philip and Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s office responded late Tuesday that the county was free to notify the public.
Gimenez’s letter plus information in the records released Wednesday offer the most specific information yet about the five traps that captured mosquitoes carrying Zika:
▪ On Aug. 22, one sample tested positive from a trap at 932 Lenox Ave. Since then, 27 samples have been tested from that location, and all were negative.
▪ On Aug. 23, two additional samples at 1619 Meridian and the Botanical Garden tested positive for Zika. Since then, 45 samples from those two locations have been tested, all negative.
▪ On Sept. 4, a sample from 2378 Prairie Ave. tested positive. Since then, 17 samples have been tested and all were negative.
▪ On Sept. 9, a sample from 1236 Drexel Ave. tested positive. Ten more samples taken subsequently from the same area have tested negative for Zika.
The Herald filed suit Sept. 16 against the county seeking disclosure of the trap locations on grounds that the information would help the public make decisions about precautions to take if they live or work nearby, and also would inform the community debate on the use of the controversial insecticide naled, which is being used in Miami Beach to control the mosquito population.
On Wednesday, Leah Schultz, an event planner who works in the 1200 block of Drexel Avenue, lamented that Zika was triggering cancellations by clients. Schultz also worried about the impacts from a recent case of mosquito-borne dengue reported Tuesday in Miami-Dade, but she said health officials need to inform the public.
“It’s kind of scary,” Schultz said. “Today, when I heard there was dengue, I was like, really? I feel like we’re in a movie.”
Miami Herald Staff Writers Joey Flechas and Kyra Gurney contributed to this report.
Zika cases reported in Florida as of Sept. 28
Number of Cases
Total cases not involving pregnant women
. . .
. . .
Cases involving pregnant women regardless of symptoms*
* Counties of pregnant women not disclosed.
** Does not include local cases
Source: Florida Department of Health