Miami-Dade County

Dem whip visits Little Haiti, rips Republicans over Zika virus inaction

Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (L) and Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (R) talk to reporters about Zika Wednesday morning at the Little Haiti Caribbean Marketplace, 212 NE 59th Terr.
Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (L) and Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (R) talk to reporters about Zika Wednesday morning at the Little Haiti Caribbean Marketplace, 212 NE 59th Terr. Miami Herald

Worried that a protracted healthcare strike in Zika-plagued Haiti could exacerbate Miami’s own problems with the virus, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, of Maryland, joined Miami Congresswoman Frederica Wilson and a delegation of local politicians Wednesday morning to canvas Little Haiti businesses and blame Republicans for Congress’ failure to fund efforts to combat the virus.

Standing in the Little Haiti Caribbean Marketplace on Northeast Second Avenue, about 20 blocks north of a neighborhood where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said mosquitoes are spreading the virus, Wilson said that more needs to be done to disseminate information in Miami’s Haitian community about the dangers of Zika and how to avoid contracting and spreading it. So far, the state has identified 21 locally contracted cases in South Florida believed linked to mosquitoes in an area that includes Wynwood, Midtown Miami and parts of the Design District and Edgewater.

Trailed by reporters, Wilson and Hoyer walked through Second Avenue shops and the Pinnacle health clinic, distributing mosquito repellent and fliers written in Creole. Their efforts come during the popular summer travel season in which many Haitians from South Florida and other places travel to their hometowns for festivals.

Haitian activists have recently criticized a lack of Creole outreach by local officials and the state Health Department.

“We go to Haiti every day. People from Haiti come here every day,” said Wilson, whose comments came one day after health officials announced they were investigating whether two cases of microcephaly in Haiti were caused by the Zika virus. “This is a crisis. A huge crisis.”

In Haiti, where more than 2,000 suspected cases have been identified since the nation’s first case was discovered in January, an ongoing strike by medical residents has paralyzed the country’s weak healthcare system. As a result, people either seek private care or no care at all.

Getting moms-to-be to prenatal care, and to give birth in a hospital — rather than at home — remains a huge challenge in Haiti, where the public maternity hospital was among those shuttered or only partially operating. Many travel hours by public transportation to the Partners In Health hospital in Mirebalais, where they have confirmed cases of Zika-related microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Dr. Jacques Boncy, director of Haiti’s National Public Health Laboratory, acknowledged that one of the challenges in tracking Zika in Haiti is that sick people don’t always run to the doctor for a fever.

“The ministry has a plan where it is preparing a surveillance of pregnant women,” he said. “But they need additional financial support.”

Back in Miami, Wilson, who last month asked the State Department’s Haiti Special Coordinator Kenneth Merten to consider providing temporary assistance to Haitian healthcare workers, said her aim was to educate, not stigmatize. But despite a bi-partisan effort among Florida politicians to push for Zika funding, her presence in Little Haiti had another aim, as well: to blame Republicans for blocking President Obama’s request for funding to combat the virus.

Standing next to Wilson, Hoyer, who grew up in Miami, said Democrats are willing to return from summer recess this month to pass a funding bill. Legislation that would have provided more than $1 billion toward the effort died after Republicans in the House of Representatives attached a measure that would have de-funded Planned Parenthood, causing Democrats to balk.

“We’ve twiddled our thumbs for seven months without doing what we should have done,” he said. “We know that this is a sexually transmitted disease. And to prevent contraceptive advice in this bill is unconscionable, and it’s stupid.”

Wilson and state Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Democrat from Cutler Bay, also criticized Gov. Rick Scott for not declaring a state of emergency and opening up federal funding through FEMA.

Scott issued a statement Tuesday blaming the Obama administration for leaving a request for 10,000 Zika test kits for pregnant women unfulfilled and failing to detail a plan on how the state should work with FEMA.

“Every day that passes that Congress and the president fail to come to an agreement hinders our national response to Zika,” Scott said in a statement.

Among the politicians in Little Haiti Wednesday was Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon, whose wife is seven months’ pregnant and was being tested Wednesday to make sure she hasn’t contracted Zika. Hardemon lives on the edge of Overtown, but his district includes Wynwood and Little Haiti.

“This is something that we should all take seriously,” he said.