President Obama’s top health official will visit Puerto Rico this week to get a firsthand look at how the island is combating the Zika virus, a trip that coincides with Senate efforts to partially fund President Obama $1.9 billion request for emergency funding to stave off the mosquito-borne illness.
On a two-day trip, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell will meet with Puerto Rican Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla, tour a blood bank and personally urge pregnant women and those of childbearing age to protect themselves against mosquito bites that could lead to infection.
Zika is causing babies to be born with abnormally small heads in Brazil and other Latin American countries. Though it isn’t circulating on the U.S. mainland, the territories have reported 500 cases of locally acquired Zika, mostly in Puerto Rico. Nearly 50 of the cases involved pregnant women.
Mrs. Burwell’s tour will be the administration’s third high-profile visit to the island this year.
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, visited in March to address Zika, and Treasury Jacob J. Lew met with local officials in January to discuss the island’s $70 billion debt — a crisis that threatens basic health services for its 3.5 million residents.
Congress is working on a bill that would rescue Puerto Rico from its debt woes by imposing a fiscal oversight board and setting up a mechanism to restructure the island’s debts. Both parties have faulted aspects of the bill, however, delaying action on Capitol Hill.
At the same time, senators are nearing a deal to pony up hundreds of millions to combat Zika at home and abroad.
Mr. Obama’s Zika request includes $250 million to bolster Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program, since its funding is capped and the island theoretically cannot respond as easily to emergencies.