- The Washington Times - Friday, July 29, 2016

Mosquitoes appear to be spreading the Zika virus on the U.S. mainland, Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Friday, after a crop of cases in Miami could not be traced to travel or other means.

The development caps an anxious, monthslong watch for the type of local transmission that’s battered Puerto Rico and incited an election-year fight in Congress over money to stem the epidemic, which is causing serious birth defects in Brazil and other Latin American countries.

Previously, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been able to link all 1,657 Zika cases in the states and D.C. to people who’d returned from countries where the virus is circulating, plus one case of accidental laboratory infection.

“We learned today that four people in our state likely have the Zika virus as a result of a mosquito bite,” Mr. Scott, a Republican, said.

Federal and state officials had been girding for this possibility, as summer temperatures climbed and mosquito populations flourished.

U.S. territories have reported 4,750 cases of Zika through mosquito bite, mostly in Puerto Rico, though Mr. Scott said this problem now appears to be affecting a square-mile area just north of downtown Miami.

A map from his office isolated an area of the Wynwood neighborhood between I-95 and Route 1, although officials haven’t found Zika in actual mosquitoes yet.

Mr. Scott said he will direct $1.28 million in state funds to mosquito teams in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

The state can test thousands for the virus, according to the governor, who urged expectant mothers to consult with their doctors and protect themselves from mosquito bites.

Scientists have long warned that Florida and other states along the Gulf of Mexico are vulnerable to Zika, because they are home to the type of Aedes mosquitoes that typically ferry the virus. Florida has dealt with related viruses such as dengue, which are carried by the same insects, in recent years.

On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration urged blood banks in Miami-Dade and Broward counties to stop collections until they are able to screen each donated unit for Zika.

The FDA said adjacent counties should do the same, as a precaution. It is also urging people who’ve traveled to those counties to wait for a month before donating blood.

Mr. Scott said the state will provide $620,000 to OneBlood, the primary blood bank in the area, to assist Zika screening.

Congress left town this month without settling on a package of federal funds to combat Zika, which surfaced in Brazil last year and caused an uptick in the number of babies born with abnormally small heads, a condition known as microcephaly.

Lawmakers won’t return to Capitol Hill until September, leaving agencies such as the CDC to use money it shifted from other accounts.

“I’m calling on Congress to get to work, as soon as they find it convenient for them,” deputy White House Press Secretary Eric Schultz said wryly, in response to developments in Florida.

President Obama wanted nearly $2 billion to combat and research the virus, though Republican leaders said it would be irresponsible to tack the cost onto the deficit, so it paid for $750 million of its $1.1 billion counteroffer by taking money from Obamacare, the Ebola fight in West Africa and other accounts.

Senate Democrats filibustered the package before skipping town for a seven-week recess, saying the deal shortchanged the effort and had too many strings attached, so Congress should reopen talks.

“The House and Senate must return to Washington immediately to provide the funding public health officials need to protect the American people,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “This news should be a wake-up call to Republicans to start taking this threat seriously.”

Leading Republicans, however, say the Obama administration should spend down the $589 million it previously shifted from the Ebola fight and other accounts, before it puts its hand out for more cash.

While that debate festers, the CDC said Zika is swamping Puerto Rico.

More than 5,580 people have been infected on the island, including 672 pregnant women, and the rate of positive tests for those suspected of having the disease spiked from 14 percent in February to 64 percent in June.

“The virus is silently and rapidly spreading in Puerto Rico,” said Lyle R. Peterson, director of the CDC’s Division of Vector-Borne Diseases. “This could lead to hundreds of infants being born with microcephaly or other birth defects in the coming year. We must do all we can to protect pregnant women from Zika and to prepare to care for infants born with microcephaly.”

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