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With federal funding in limbo, Mayor Mitch Landrieu has announced the city will shell out $500,000 in additional money to help prevent the spread of the virus.
With the first Zika virus cases from mosquitoes in the continental U.S. emerging during recent days in Miami, Florida, Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans said Wednesday he would authorize $500,000 of new funding to help prevent the disease in Louisiana’s largest city.
Landrieu also called on Congress to approve emergency funding President Obama requested earlier this year for fighting Zika. Legislation that would have allotted just over $1 billion derailed a little over a month ago amid partisan wrangling, and lawmakers are now on recess.
Cities and states around the U.S. are taking new steps to combat Zika after 15 cases of the virus in Florida were said to have been spread by mosquitoes in an area north of downtown Miami. Officials there confirmed the cases between last Friday and Tuesday of this week.
“That’s just right down the road from us in the southern part of the United States,” Landrieu said of Miami during a press conference Wednesday. “We consider this to be a very serious threat,” he added, referring to Zika. “Not something to panic about. But something to be prepared for.”
No Zika infections are known to have been transmitted by mosquitoes locally in New Orleans or Louisiana, according to the mayor. But mosquitoes that carry the virus, members of the Aedes species, are active in both places. And there are 17 cases in the state that originated elsewhere.
The Florida cases are believed to stem from mosquitoes concentrated in a roughly one square-mile area, which covers a neighborhood called Wynwood.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week issued a travel advisory for the area, cautioning pregnant women against traveling there.
While Zika typically causes mild or undetectable symptoms in most people it has been linked to serious birth defects when passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus.
Mosquito bites are one way the disease can spread. But it can be contracted through sex as well, and likely via blood transfusions, according to the CDC.
Landrieu on Wednesday, along with other local officials, urged New Orleans residents to clear their property of standing water, which can provide mosquitoes with breeding grounds, and to take basic steps to prevent bites from the insects, such as wearing repellent and long sleeves.
The $500,000, the mayor said, would support more aggressive spraying of mosquito-killing insecticides in the city. According to the mayor’s office, the New Orleans Mosquito, Termite and Rodent Control Board, which oversees that work, has an annual budget is $3.5 million.
Waylaid Federal Funding
On Tuesday, the CDC announced $16 million in funding for 35 U.S. states and five territories to help cover Zika-related costs. But in a statement the agency said those funds were “a stopgap diverted from other public health resources until Zika funds are provided by Congress.” The money comes in addition to $25 million the agency awarded on July 1 for Zika.
President Obama in February asked Congress for $1.9 billion for efforts to fight the disease.
A GOP-backed bill that would have provided $1.1 billion was blocked in late June by Senate Democrats. These lawmakers objected to a number of politically charged provisions that House Republicans had worked into the legislation, which had to do with areas such as Planned Parenthood, the Confederate flag and funding for the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
During a press conference on Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who is seeking re-election, predicted that the likeliest scenario would be that the Zika legislation would not get dealt with until members of Congress return to Washington in September.
Rubio, who supported Obama’s initial $1.9 billion request, said he wished “the House would have just passed a bill that had nothing on it except Zika funding. Because we could have gotten it done.” He added: “I just want the money to flow.”
The senator argues, however, that the White House should in the near term use $350 million of funding, originally authorized for responding to Ebola, on Zika-related measures.
Landrieu, a Democrat who testified before a House committee in May about the need for the Zika funding Obama had requested, quipped that Congress should “do their job.” He emphasized that the city would require state and federal support to sustain an aggressive response to the threats the virus poses.
“Mosquitoes don’t really respect political parties and they don’t respect Congress’ timeline,” the mayor said.
‘Just a Matter of Time’
August is considered the peak of mosquito season in New Orleans, according to Dr. Claudia Riegel, director of the New Orleans Mosquito, Termite and Rodent Control Board.
She points out that mosquitoes that transmit Zika can breed in relatively small pools of water that might form in places like grill covers, bottle caps or bucket lids. The city is offering to dispose of up to four old tires for residents. These can also collect water when left lying around.
During a call with reporters on Monday, CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden said that in Miami “aggressive mosquito control measures don't seem to be working as well as we would have liked.”
He explained that one reason this could be the case is that the mosquitoes there are resistant to the insecticides being sprayed. But there were other possibilities as well, such as small pools of water, known as “cryptic” breeding sites, where new mosquitoes continue to hatch.
Riegel, who made remarks Wednesday during the press conference where Landrieu spoke, said New Orleans had done extensive testing and found that pesticides were effective for killing the mosquitoes that are active in the city.
In New York state on Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo touted Zika-related initiatives getting rolled out there, including the deployment of larvicide tablets, which will be dropped in puddles of water in New York City subway tunnels.
Cuomo’s office said 110,000 mosquitoes had been tested for Zika in the state so far this year, and all of them were negative.
Zika has hit hard in dozens of countries in Central and South America. And poorer communities are considered especially vulnerable. Among the serious birth defects it can lead to is microcephaly, a condition where babies have smaller than normal heads.
According to the CDC there is not currently a vaccine for Zika.
Statistics from the agency show that as of July 27 there were 1,658 reported cases of the virus in the U.S. But, before the 15 Florida infections, all of these had originated in other countries.
Rubio warned that lawmakers throughout the country should be concerned about Zika.
“This mosquito is present in 38 out of 50 states,” he said of the species that can carry the virus.
“My argument that I’ve made to people repeatedly is: you’re going to have Zika cases,” he added. “You’re going to have cases of microcephaly that wind up in your communities, whether it’s travel or domestically transmitted, and it’s just a matter of time.”
Bill Lucia is a Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.
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