Miami-Dade County

County fights Zika on two fronts: killing mosquitoes, calming public

Carlos Varas, a Miami-Dade County mosquito inspector, sprays around homes in the Wynwood area of Miami on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016.
Carlos Varas, a Miami-Dade County mosquito inspector, sprays around homes in the Wynwood area of Miami on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016.

For a lesson in the daunting possibilities of fighting mosquitoes in Miami-Dade County, follow rain down the road and into the sewer.

At a special meeting held to address Zika concerns, Mayor Carlos Gimenez outlined a string of steps under way to reduce the mosquito-borne virus by killing the insects where they live and breed. That includes storm drains, and Miami-Dade has about 150,000 of them. The county has begun “dunking” them with insecticide packets that last about 30 days.

“We’re working to deploy people to treat the drains with dunks,” he said. “In order to get this down, we have to get 5,000 drains done a day… And we have to keep this effort going through mosquito season.”

The emergency session with the mayor and county commissioners swung between the two crucial fronts in the county’s Zika battle. The first was detailing the county effort to tamp down mosquito breeding in Wynwood, the subject of an unprecedented federal travel advisory for pregnant women after Zika was discovered there last month. The second was the desire to calm fears and assure travelers that most of Miami-Dade remains clear of the virus at a time when Moody’s is warning of potential damage to the county’s tourism industry.

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“In Miami-Dade County, you’re more likely to be killed in a car wreck than to get Zika,” said tourism chief Bill Talbert, repeating a widely quoted remark by an official with the Centers for Disease Control. “We are open for business.”

While the near-daily aerial spraying of insecticide in a 10-mile zone around Wynwood was scheduled to resume Wednesday, no planes have made such missions elsewhere in the county all summer, said Chalmers Vasquez, head of Miami-Dade’s mosquito control division.

“We haven’t had any need to spray for mosquitoes this year until now. Wynwood is the only place we have sprayed so far,” he said. “It’s a very slow mosquito season. Same as last year.”

He said an unusually dry summer has cut down on the breeding in the county’s biggest mosquito enclaves. Still, county workers have fanned across Miami-Dade responding to resident complaints about bug infestations, using hand-held insecticide sprayers.

With Zika fears spreading — and Florida revealing four more Zika infections in Wynwood after Tuesday’s meeting concluded — Miami-Dade has boosted its 12-person mosquito-control team to nearly 100 people, mostly contractors. But with more than 2,400 square miles to cover, and about 2.6 million residents, Vasquez finds his team is one of the most sought-after in Miami-Dade.

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“We received 3,000 or 4,000 requests in a few days,” he said.

Vasquez said the county’s mosquito-trapping stations in Wynwood, set up after the state notified Miami-Dade of a potential insect-borne case there in late July, have shown a steady drop in the pest population. While the traps were catching about two dozen mosquitoes a day two weeks ago, on Tuesday the count was down to just one bug per station.

Alina Hudak, the deputy Miami-Dade mayor overseeing the Zika response, said the county is spending $300,000 on ads urging residents to eliminate standing water in flower pots and elsewhere in the yard. And in June nearly 1 million mailers went out to residents with the same message. Another 1 million door hangers and cards have been distributed, including to Target, Walgreens and local supermarkets for dropping in shopping bags. More than 200,000 packets of insect-repellant wipes also were sent to the 13 commissioners’ offices and elsewhere for those without their own bug spray.

Gimenez said Miami-Dade had 121 residents with Zika as of Tuesday afternoon — 106 people who caught it elsewhere, and 15 who caught it locally. That was before Florida’s Health Department announced the four new locally contracted cases, news that broke while Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton toured a Miami clinic located in the Zika travel-advisory zone.

Gimenez said Wynwood’s best hope for relief is to see Washington lift its first-in-the-nation travel advisory on a one-square-mile area in the Miami neighborhood. The advisory urges pregnant women to stay away from the area, which includes Wynwood, the popular Midtown Miami retail complex and parts of Biscayne Boulevard.

Businesses in the popular tourist district are reporting a sharp drop in sales and blaming national media attention over a virus considered a serious threat only for pregnant women. This week, Moody’s warned of a much broader economic problem for Miami-Dade if the advisory holds beyond the slow summer tourism season and into the fall or even the winter. At that point, the sales and hotel taxes underpinned by the tourism industry could decline enough to cause the county financial strain, the report stated.

“The warning will likely reduce travel to the region, affecting key sources of tax revenue linked to tourism, including sales, gas and [hotel] taxes,” the report stated. A slow summer already had the county’s hotel taxes trailing projections, according to reports through June, meaning Zika could be an even bigger complication for the 2017 budget year.

Zika itself promises to be costly. The current $1.5 million budget is down from nearly $4 million during the pre-recession days of 2006, but county officials are diverting surplus dollars and other funds to back the Zika response, and about $1.8 million is proposed for 2017. “Forget about the budget. That’s just the baseline,” Gimenez said he told his aides. “We will do everything that we have to do.”

In his remarks at the meeting, Gimenez said his administration had begun “ramping up” its efforts on Zika months before the Wynwood cases became global news. The local Zika outbreak landed in the middle of the 2016 mayoral race, and Gimenez challenger Raquel Regalado used Tuesday’s meeting to launch a series of Twitter posts to accuse Gimenez of inaction on the virus before the outbreak forced his hand. “Ask yourself,” Regalado wrote, “why wasn’t [Zika] prevented or contained before it became a crisis?”

When Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman asked about possible federal relief for Zika, Gimenez said he hoped to get reimbursement for county expenses from Florida but that he did not want to overstate the problem.

“I hope it is not declared an emergency. Because I’d rather not see an emergency,” he said. “We’ve been at this for some time. This is not the first mosquito-borne disease we have seen in this town.”

Lillian Rivera, local administrator of the Florida Department of Health, noted the stage agency was founded in 1889 to fight yellow fever.

“We have yellow fever. We have Chikungunya. And we have dengue. And now we have Zika,” she said. “And we have been very, very successful at keeping them at bay.”