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Early Steps Ramping Up As Zika Cases Increase

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel

While Florida Health officials are investigating the first potential local mosquito transmission of the Zika virus in the continental U-S, some are questioning whether the country is prepared to care for a growing number of children born with microcephaly.

A group of Democrats spent the last weeks before Congress took its summer break pushing for a plan to earmark funding to fight the Zika virus. President Barack Obama has asked for $1.9-billion to research and prepare for Zika. But Florida Senator Bill Nelson says the legislation that came up for a vote wasn’t a real solution.

“Because it had all kinds of extraneous things in there—highly partisan provisions that were poison pills and yet this is how this Zika crisis is being treated as a matter of partisan politics,” Nelson says.

The measure included a provision that would have impacted funds for planned parenthood—a move Nelson says is nonsensical. And Florida Congresswoman Karen Castor agrees.  

It included language making access to contraceptive services more difficult at home and abroad. It really was a senseless and counterproductive restriction when responding to a virus that can spread through sexual transmission,” Castor says.

But March of Dimes Chief Medical Officer Ed McCabe insists the government will end up paying for the effects of the virus one way or another—either through protection or care.

We’re hearing that with severe microcephaly caused by Zika, it could be 10 million dollars. Up to or more than 10 million dollars per baby. That’s 100 babies would be $1-billion.”

Meanwhile in Florida, one baby has already been born in the state with microcephaly as a result of the virus. The child was born to a Haitian mother who had contracted Zika. Officials say she traveled to the United States to give birth. They referred the child to the state’s Early Steps Program. Robert Porcaro is the chief operating officer for the Easter Seals of Florida. The Department of Health contracts with the Easter Seals to fund local early steps programs.

“What this program does, the Early Steps Program is provides coaching and educational supports as well as medical rehabilitation and therapies to children from ages birth to 36 months of age that are having developmental delays,” Porcaro says.

But, is the program ready provide that care to a potentially growing number of children born with microcephaly?

“Well, that’s an interesting question. I believe that we will be. As of this second, probably no,” Porcaro says.

Funding for Early Steps comes from both state and federal sources. And while a few years ago, Florida funding for the program seemed questionable. Porcaro says that’s no longer the case.

“The legislature, did, as you may or may not be aware, last year infuse $13-million  into the early steps program. $11 million of which is in recurring funds and $2 million is in non-recurring. So the Early Steps state office out of Tallahassee with be using that $2 million for special projects, what have you. But the remaining $11 million went into each local early steps program around the state for service provision,” Porcaro says.

And he says that’s the main reason Early Steps might not be ready for the impact of Zika—yet

The money is there and the legislature had the increased comprehension of the urgency and the need for the funding, but it takes time to ramp up. So as we identify more and more children, with the need for the services we have to expand the infrastructure. There are more service coordinators that are needed to handle the influx of children. There is going to certainly be an increased need of providers to be able to handle the services and to ramp it up," Porcaro says.

But Porcaro says he thinks the system is activity moving forward will be ready when the need arises.

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