Despite local backlash against the use of a controversial insecticide, the first round of aerial spraying to curb the spread of Zika virus in South Beach took place early Friday. It lasted about 30 minutes.
A plane contracted by Miami-Dade County flew in the darkness just after 5 a.m. for the first of four spraying cycles that officials hope will quickly bring down the number of mosquitoes carrying Zika virus in Miami Beach.
The drone of the plane could be heard and lights could be spotted from Ocean Drive as it passed over the water three times. Few people were out. Some joggers hurried by in Lummus Park, where a few men slept along the rock wall. Restaurant staff were cleaning sidewalk tables.
From the sidewalk along the beach, the fine mist could not be seen, smelled or felt. Over at Miami Beach Senior High School, many students stayed home — some explicitly to protest the aerial spraying.
State, county and city officials insist the aerial spraying is an emergency measure to bring mosquito counts down, a stance they reiterated Friday afternoon when the Florida Department of Agriculture announced that a new batch of mosquitoes trapped Sept. 4 tested positive for Zika.
“The fact that we have identified a fourth Zika-positive mosquito pool in Miami Beach serves as further confirmation that we must continue our proactive and aggressive approach to controlling the mosquito population, including our recent decision to begin aerial spraying in combination with larvicide treatment by truck,” said Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez in a statement.
The newest pool is within the boundaries of the previously defined Zika zone, but officials would not narrow down the location beyond that. So far, they have refused to disclose all but one of the locations of these mosquito pools. One sample location, the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, was widely known after the city-owned garden closed for mosquito treatment last week. It reopened Tuesday.
Also Friday, the Florida Department of Health reported the number of locally-transmitted Zika cases remained at 56. Twelve new travel-related cases were reported, bringing the state’s total travel-related infections to 616 and number of pregnant women with the virus to 84.
According to county officials, meteorological equipment on board the spraying plane was used to measure weather conditions and calculate a flight path that would allow the aircraft to spray the insecticide naled and let the wind waft it over the island. The target area was between Eighth Street and 28th Street.
The next spraying will take place at 6 a.m. Sunday, weather permitting. Two more Sunday morning flights are scheduled for the following two weeks.
The use of naled has angered residents who fear potential harmful effects of the insecticide. Some scientists have suggested exposure to large doses of naled can lead to health problems for people.
Some South Beach residents said this week they would leave during the spraying. Realtor Stavros Mitchelides said he and his girlfriend would probably stay with family in Sarasota.
“I’d rather have Zika than be exposed to naled,” he wrote in an email.
Benjamin Burstein, a 17-year-old senior at Beach High, said several students were talking about naled this week, and many were against it. On Facebook, a group of about 30 students said they were going to stay home in protest.
The opposition to naled showed on Friday in the classroom.
“There was a ton of people missing,” he said.
Aerial spraying over Miami Beach will continue Sunday at 6 a.m.
The mist dissipates when it hits the ground and water, according to county officials. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended naled for mosquito control. The Environmental Protection Agency has maintained that low concentrations of the chemical will not harm people.
“Aerial spraying has been used in the continental U.S., including in Florida, for decades, and is an important … tool to rapidly reduce the mosquito population in the current circumstances,” read a CDC statement. “Action is needed now to protect women in Florida from the devastating impact Zika can have on pregnancy, and CDC supports Florida in their efforts to take this action.”
While many have come out to strongly oppose aerial spraying, some residents favor the spraying as a necessary trade-off to stave off Zika. Alex Fernandez, a resident of the Bayshore neighborhood inside the Beach’s Zika zone, said he’d rather deal with a temporary fumigation if it will keep the virus from spreading in the long term.
“Some of us do think it’s responsible and the right thing to do,” he said.
Herald reporter Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this report.