Health Care

Zika infects the Miami-Dade mayoral election

Gov. Rick Scott, left, along with Miami-Dade county mayor Carlos Gimenez, speaks to local officials in June about ways to combat the spread of the Zika virus
Gov. Rick Scott, left, along with Miami-Dade county mayor Carlos Gimenez, speaks to local officials in June about ways to combat the spread of the Zika virus

Of all the issues with the potential to upend the looming 2016 Miami-Dade mayoral election, mosquito control was an unlikely candidate — until a trendy Miami neighborhood became ground zero for Zika infections in the continental U.S.

Revelations last week that several patients in Miami had contracted the virus from mosquitoes in Wynwood confirmed that Miami was the nation’s first city with a local cluster of the disease. Pregnant women have flooded doctors’ offices and some are leaving town. Tourist-dependent businesses have sweated ever since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an unprecedented domestic travel advisory telling expecting women to keep away.

And at the center of it all is Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, the man who oversees local mosquito control efforts and happens to be little more than three weeks away from an Aug. 30 election.

“These are the types of crises that make or break elected officials,” said Fernand Amandi, a Miami pollster and AM radio host. “Zika has become a four-alarm fire for South Florida, and it’s not just his constituents that are watching.”

In the days immediately after the state’s announcement about Wynwood, Gimenez amped up the county’s efforts. He expanded the number of workers handling complaints and control efforts from 12 to 102 and launched the first of several planned aerial pesticide sprayings over a 10-square-mile area. He appeared in multiple press conferences and on cable news to discuss what Miami-Dade was doing to quash the outbreak as county employees and contractors scoured the neighborhood with backpack foggers.

On Thursday, CDC Director Tom Frieden said he wouldn’t be surprised to see more infections in Wynwood and noted how difficult it is to control the population of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which carries Zika and lays eggs that can hatch in the tiniest amount of standing water. But he said county efforts to kill mosquitoes were proving effective so far.

“I’m really impressed with how intensive the work has been,” Frieden said.

Still, as the county’s response has drawn praise, its preparation has been criticized.

This year, Miami-Dade set aside $1.7 million for mosquito control in a county of 2,400 square miles and 2.7 million people. That’s down from $3.7 million in 2006 and about one-fifth of the money spent by the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District. The county’s resources have been repeatedly called into question in recent months given Miami’s heightened risk for Zika infection as a travel hub for Latin America and the Caribbean, where the virus has been active for at least two years.

“They are underfunded and undermanned,” Ed Fussell, former chief of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, told the Miami Herald earlier this week.

So far, Miami-Dade has 118 confirmed cases of Zika infection, all but 14 of which were acquired abroad. This week, the virus bled into the political realm as county candidates fielded questions about the county’s budget and response during a Wednesday night debate in Overtown, where just a few hours later planes would pass overhead, dropping pesticides.

“He just doesn’t make public safety a priority until we’re at a crisis moment,” Raquel Regalado, Gimenez’s main competition and a School Board member, said Friday in an interview. “And in this instance, with Zika in particular and the way it’s all been blown up in the media, it’s not just a public safety concern but it’s also what’s the economic impact going to be?”

Gimenez also took jabs Friday from Doral Mayor Luigi Boria and Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado about what they said was a lack of mosquito spraying during a meeting of mayors with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in Doral. Regalado, who is also Raquel Regalado’s father, repeated a prior claim that the county hadn’t sprayed in Wynwood for years.

Gimenez, who has been dealing with an undisclosed family emergency, said Friday that aerial spraying would resume this weekend but left the gathering without taking questions from reporters. His spokesman, Michael Hernández, said the county’s mosquito control efforts have been taken in consultation with experts.

“If others want to make this very serious issue into a political football, that’s on them,” Hernández said. “Mayor Gimenez and his administration aren’t acting in a political fashion. They’re applying the practices we have in the past and consulting with public health experts as we move forward to keep our community safe from Zika.”

The county, meanwhile, isn’t receiving a ton of outside help. Congress went on recess without passing President Barack Obama’s request for $1.9 billion in Zika aid, and the state so far has only contributed $300,000 to Miami-Dade’s efforts to tamp down the mosquito population. Amandi, who has conducted a poll in the race for the Miami Herald, said the problem could also blow back on Regalado’s father given the city’s role in addressing code complaints for things like standing water and mosquito nuisances.

Whether Miami’s Zika outbreak will consume the election cycle in the coming weeks probably depends on whether infections continue and whether they spread to other areas of the county. So far, Wynwood business is down, but the county’s tourism boosters say that overall the issue hasn’t been a big problem. Meanwhile, the state’s health department says 16 cases have been contracted locally, including one possibly born in Southwest Dade and another from Wynwood confirmed Friday.

Alina Hudak, Miami-Dade’s deputy mayor in charge of mosquito control, says the county has spared no expense in fighting Zika, keeping families safe and trying to inform property owners about the ways they can help prevent mosquito breeding.

She said more than $400,000 was spent early this year on outreach efforts, including a direct mail piece sent by the county to every property in the county. She said the frequent focus on the county’s mosquito control budget and staff of about a dozen inspectors has also been myopic given the county’s plan to increase funding and use private contractors during emergency situations, which she estimated will cost the county millions above her budget.

As for those suggesting that the county should have been more proactive or done more aerial spraying, Hudak said mosquito complaints had actually been down this year until recently, and “all the science that we had really didn’t warrant any additional support.”

“The mayor has from day one supported us in whatever we’ve needed and made it very clear . . . to make sure we don’t make any decision based on budget,” she said. “Whenever I’ve had to mobilize, we’ve mobilized.”

This article was updated to correct information about polling conducted last year by Bendixen & Amandi, paid for by Norman Braman. The firm has not polled for the Regalado campaign.