Aerial Spraying Begins In Miami Neighborhood Impacted By Zika Virus

Aug 4, 2016
Originally published on August 4, 2016 6:28 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Miami today, authorities started aerial spraying of insecticides over the area where they've confirmed local transmission of Zika. The effort to stop the spread of Zika in Miami is raising concerns about funding in Washington. In a press conference today, President Obama urged leaders in Congress to approve his request for more funding to fight Zika.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Congress needs to do its job. Fighting Zika costs money.

CORNISH: NPR's Greg Allen reports on how people in Miami are coping.

JAMES BERNAT: English?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, good.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: In Miami's Wynwood neighborhood, city police officer James Bernat is stopping people on the street, many of them visitors from other countries.

BERNAT: Hi. Do you know about the Zika?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, we have heard about it.

BERNAT: OK, so this is pamphlet here would tell you about the Zika and how it's spread and the symptoms of Zika.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK.

ALLEN: The Wynwood neighborhood is internationally known for its murals and street art. It's home to galleries, artist studios plus clubs, restaurants and cafes. More recently, though, it's become the first place in the continental U.S. where mosquitoes are believed to be spreading the Zika virus. Bernat has also been passing the word about Zika and handing out cans of mosquito repellent to the area's homeless population.

BERNAT: We tried with the homeless because the homeless are in the streets 24/7. They're more susceptible to mosquito bites.

ALLEN: Even before local transmission was confirmed last week, local and state officials took aggressive measures here. Mosquito control inspectors are combing the area on foot, using insecticide sprayers. Even with those measures, new cases of Zika were reported this week, leading the CDC to issue a warning for pregnant women to avoid the area if possible. Zika has been linked with birth defects, including microcephaly.

Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado isn't happy with the CDC travel advisory for one of the city's hottest tourist destinations. He says Florida's governor shares his concern, that the Wynwood neighborhood has been singled out as ground zero for Zika.

TOMAS REGALADO: This is not the case. It's just a cluster. And the governor himself told me that they have been testing 1000 mosquitoes a day. And they have not found a single one that is contaminated.

ALLEN: Although no mosquitoes have tested positive, health officials say that's not unusual in an area in which so far just 15 cases have been identified. The state and the CDC are confident that local transmission has taken place in Wynwood, tracing most of the cases to a single workplace. But they're now investigating a new Zika case in another location in south Florida.

David Lombardi, a developer and business owner, says given Wynwood's popularity and the aggressive response mounted by government and the neighborhood, he expects concerns about Zika to be, as he puts it, just a small bump in the road.

DAVID LOMBARDI: We're sweeping off our rooftops to get rid of standing water. We've been sweeping out the curbs. We've been handing out Off! spray on the streets to people walking by. You know, this isn't going to get us down.

ALLEN: Concerns about Zika and the consequences are much more acute among those most vulnerable to the disease - pregnant women. Ellen Schwartzbard is an OB-GYN with South Miami Hospital.

ELLEN SCHWARTZBARD: The phone has been ringing endlessly. There's a lot of fear in patients who are pregnant, patients who are planning pregnancy. They want to be tested regardless of what public health recommendation is.

ALLEN: The CDC recommends testing just for pregnant women who may have been exposed to Zika - in this case, someone who has recently been to Wynwood. With an overwhelming demand, though, Schwartzbard says finding enough test kits for Zika has been a challenge. She's been able to get just five and is awaiting delivery of 20 more, each of which already has a patient's name on it.

Florida Governor Rick Scott says the state will make Zika tests available free to pregnant women at county health offices and is scrambling to get more. In the meantime, Schwartzbard says, some of her patients are considering leaving the area until they deliver.

SCHWARTZBARD: Yeah, that's not an easy decision to make, but some people are very nervous. And if it is a possible option for them, they are seriously considering it.

ALLEN: Schwartzbard says her big concern is that if the area of Zika exposure spreads to other parts of south Florida, doctors and public health authorities could be overwhelmed. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.