Zika May Infect Florida Senate Race as Money to Fight Virus Lags

  • Record tourism in Florida collides with fears of an outbreak
  • Democrats think Republicans could pay a price in November

Larry Smart, a Miami-Dade County mosquito control inspector, uses a fogger to spray pesticide to kill mosquitos as the county fights a possible Zika virus outbreak on May 26, 2016, in Miami.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Republicans running to fill Marco Rubio’s U.S. Senate seat bragged at a dinner in Boca Raton, Florida, last week about opposing red-light traffic cameras and trying to impeach the Internal Revenue Service commissioner. The one thing they didn’t mention was the Zika virus, which could loom large in the November election.

Florida, the ultimate swing state in the race to determine control of the White House and Senate, is on the front lines of the mosquito-borne virus, which has swept through South America and the Caribbean, leaving a trail of birth defects. 

Zika may still be on the fringes of the state’s politics, but it could become the sleeper issue of the election. Officials waging war against the virus are already running short of money, even on the edge of Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom.

“You come here because you are safe,” said Terry Torrens, who is in charge of mosquito control in Florida’s Osceola County, which borders Walt Disney World and has appealed for $900,000 to cover spray trucks, backpacks and personnel. “I need more staff and I need more resources.”

Officials throughout Florida are trying to stave off Zika before it can scare away some of the 105 million people who visit the state each year. But additional funding has been held up by a dispute within the Republican-led Congress.

Emergency Funding

The Republican Senate candidates may be hoping the Zika issue goes away, but several party leaders, including Florida Governor Rick Scott and Rubio himself, are warning of disaster if their party doesn’t act quickly to address a White House request for $1.9 billion in emergency funding.

Democrats certainly won’t let it rest. Zika remains “out of sight, out of mind” for now, said Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida. But he predicted the impact will be felt by November.

“Wait ’til the babies start being born. Or wait ’til it starts getting transmitted by the mosquitoes in Florida and the southern United States, which is coming with the mosquito season, the rains, the warm weather, like it has been transmitted in Puerto Rico,” Nelson said.

Indeed, the virus is already spreading in Puerto Rico, where tourists are canceling visits by the thousands, providing a sneak peek of what could befall tourist meccas like Orlando and Miami. Meanwhile, thousands of Puerto Ricans are moving to Florida every month -- often to Orlando -- because of the territory’s economic crisis.

Hitting Business

Bob Cortes, a Republican state representative from central Florida, said he’s already started to see some impact to his small business driving people from Orlando to cruise ships. About a dozen pregnant women have called to cancel so far.

“I don’t blame them,” he said, noting the birth defects that can affect babies, including microcephaly -- or tiny heads.

If the government doesn’t act forcefully, Cortes said the blowback could be against career politicians, not necessarily Republicans, and that could cause voters to gravitate to candidates like Donald Trump.

"They are sick and tired of the federal government’s inability to respond to anything," Cortes said.

More than 100 people in Florida have already tested positive for the disease contracted while abroad, including dozens of pregnant women.

No FEMA

Yet in Osceola County, Torrens has a budget of less than $500,000 for mosquito spraying -- not even a penny for every one of Orlando’s record 66 million visitors last year.

Torrens said Zika isn’t something anybody could have prepared for, likening it to a tornado or a hurricane. There’s one difference. If those emergencies had hit, the Federal Emergency Management Agency “would have been here with resources,” she said.

The two Democratic congressmen running for Rubio’s seat have hammered Republicans on the issue and back President Barack Obama’s full $1.9 billion request. Representative Alan Grayson summed up the Republican approach to Zika as “don’t get bit” in a video critique.

And Representative Patrick Murphy, who has the backing of the Democratic Party establishment, including Obama, said the issue is personal to him because his niece is pregnant.

Spending Debate

It’s more complicated for the Republican Senate contenders, who are jockeying ahead of the state’s Aug. 30 primary. Republican voters aren’t all keen on having the federal government spend extra billions of dollars.

The five Republican candidates have each backed at least some funding. The two who are current members of the U.S. House, David Jolly and Ron DeSantis, voted for a $622 million House Republican plan that would siphon the funding from Ebola and other health accounts.

But Jolly questioned the push by Obama to fund Zika now through the next fiscal year. “Why do we declare a two-year crisis today?” Jolly asked in a recent interview, while also questioning spending money to expand Medicaid in Puerto Rico instead of focusing directly on Zika.

DeSantis admits to being frustrated that Congress keeps going on recess without a result.

"We should have had this done," DeSantis said, but predicted the fight would be "well-funded” soon.

‘Do Something’

The man Rubio has been hoping succeeds him, Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera, slammed Congress. "There has to be accountability, but damn it, do something," he said. "This is an international issue, this is a safety and security issue, this is a health issue."

The other leading Republican candidates -- businessman Carlos Beruff and defense contractor Todd Wilcox -- also backed funding, despite their anti-Washington platforms. Both said protecting the population is one of the core functions of the government.

“Split the difference,” Wilcox said. “This is a near-pandemic and we need to act.”

While Congress deliberates, people in Florida, especially pregnant women, are already taking extra precautions.

Jessie Gouveia of Palm Beach Gardens said her husband is particularly insistent.

“He’s like, you have to have your bug spray on, if we’re outside, you close the door, things like that,” she said. "So we’re taking extra precautions."

“It’s a serious issue and we should try and be as safe as we can in this country and try and keep it out," she added. "Mosquitoes are not easy to avoid.”

A sister-in-law recently canceled her trip to Puerto Rico because of fears of the virus, she said, but she doesn’t freak out every time she sees a mosquito.

“You want to be aware of what’s going on but at the same time, you don’t want to stop your life,” she said.

Torrens said she tells two nieces, each of whom are expecting, to use common sense. “If you have to stay inside, stay inside,” she said, and use air-conditioning and screens to block mosquitoes.

‘Moderate’ Risk

Michael Farzan, the vice chairman of the Department of Immunology and Microbial Science at the Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, Florida, is part of a team hoping to get federal funding to fight the disease. Farzan said the most urgent priority is developing antibodies that could be given to pregnant women to protect their babies, but that won’t happen overnight.

He called the risk of an outbreak “moderate” in any given year in Florida and said calls by some to avoid travel here are an overreaction.

“At this point there is really no worry about your Florida vacation,” he said.

But that could easily change.

Farzan said the amount spent on mosquito control is “crazy small” in places like Osceola County and Miami-Dade County, which has 12 inspectors responsible for 2,000 square miles.

Farzan notes that a map NASA created in April shows the amount of travel from areas with active Zika transmission and the prevalence of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which can transmit the virus.

There are two giant red dots on the map: Miami and Orlando.

“We are all hanging by this thread,” Farzan said of local mosquito control.

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