Talks on a Zika bill in Congress to start soon, but that's not fast enough for Floridians

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Washington, DC, June 13, 2016 | comments

 TC PALM.COM

Talks on a Zika bill in Congress to start soon, but that’s not fast enough for Floridians

By Ledyard King, USA TODAY NETWORK

Lawmakers are expected to start ironing out the details of a spending bill to combat Zika in the coming week, more than four months after President Barack Obama first asked Congress for nearly $2 billion to fight the mosquito-borne virus that has been linked to birth defects and paralysis.

A final compromise still could be weeks away and is expected to be far below the president’s request. Lawmakers probably will agree on a figure between the amounts approved by the House, which proposed $622 million, and the Senate, which proposed $1.1 billion.

It’s not clear how much a final agreement would do to quell growing anxiety in Florida, where people are besieging some congressional offices with Zika-related concerns, and where Gov. Rick Scott keeps asking Washington for help.

“This is a health emergency, (but) what we have is a political problem,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., flanked by medical experts, at a news conference this week. “We have a bunch of people around here dragging their feet. It’s time to act.”

On Friday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took action by awarding nearly $700,000 in emergency funding to Florida for epidemiology and laboratory staff, equipment and supplies, including $500,000 for seven Florida counties to enhance mosquito control efforts to combat the Zika virus.

Those counties are Martin, St. Lucie, Broward, Palm Beach, Osceola, Hillsborough and Orange counties, according to a CDC news release.

Few issues have rallied such bipartisan agreement among Florida officials. Zika has drawn together top Republicans Scott and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio with top Democrats Nelson and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who is chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

That shared sense of urgency likely will be on display Wednesday when members of the state congressional delegation meet with top public health officials to highlight the need for a Zika bill.

Florida leads the continental U.S. in Zika cases. The 175 cases reported so far spread among 20 counties (including three new cases Friday) means roughly 1 of every 4 people diagnosed with Zika on the mainland lives in the Sunshine State.

And with warm, humid weather beginning to smother the Gulf Coast and South Atlantic, experts say the threat of a potential epidemic grows every day.

Scott met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill last month to push for a funding solution. He’s also requested help from the Obama administration, such as 5,000 Zika preparedness kits and resources to enhance mosquito surveillance and abatement. On Thursday, he asked for 1,300 antibody tests for pregnant women and new mothers who want to find out whether they’ve contracted the virus.

It might already be too late, according to Peter Jay Hotez, dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Hotez said health agencies along the Gulf Coast don’t have the resources to conduct the kind of surveillance and abatement necessary to detect or prevent a locally acquired case. To date, all of the cases on the continental U.S. have involved someone who was infected outside of the U.S.

Hotez said at a news conference this week he’s more worried about expectant mothers in Florida than in Brazil, where thousands have been infected, largely because the disease has probably peaked in Brazil and authorities there are laser-focused on combating it.

“If I were a pregnant woman, I’d feel safer in Rio than on the Gulf Coast,” he said.

If constituent contacts with congressional offices is any measure, there’s plenty of worry across Florida.

U.S. Rep. Curt Clawson, R-Bonita Springs, frequently hears those concerns when he’s at events, grocery stores and coffee shops in Southwest Florida, said his chief of staff, Pat Cauley.

In an email to U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, a Bradenton woman said she was worried about her pregnant daughter’s unborn child.

And as part of a recent video in which he answers constituent mail, Rubio read a similar email from a concerned Hollywood, Florida, woman with an expectant daughter in Miami and “a cousin from the North who’s pregnant and unwilling to visit South Florida because she doesn’t want to expose herself to Zika.”

Scott often raises the specter of Zika’s impact on Florida’s $67 billion tourism industry as a key reason for action.

U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, who along with Wasserman Schultz is one of two Florida lawmakers who will help negotiate a final Zika bill, expects a deal and vote by early July if not sooner.

“I understand completely. The people in Florida expect answers,” he said. “But nothing moves that fast in Washington.”

Rooney, who voted for the $622 million bill, said the administration has plenty of money now to handle any emergency requests until a bill passes. And if more is needed after that, Congress is ready to approve extra funding next year.

“They’re not going to be short on the money they need to stop Zika from becoming an epidemic in this country,” he said. “We will do what it takes to stop this. I’m not going to have on my hands as a negotiator the stain of having been part and parcel to letting Zika get out of control. I can tell you that.”

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