(Bloomberg) — Mosquito season starts in earnest this week in the 2,000 square miles of Florida’s Miami-Dade County, which has had the most Zika cases in the U.S. To stop the insects and the epidemic they threaten, Chalmers Vasquez has just 12 full-time inspectors.
Five months ago, President Barack Obama asked Congress to allocate $1.9 billion to fight the virus, but lawmakers haven’t acted. In that time, the inspectors whom Vasquez oversees as director of the mosquito-control district have hunted the pests at the homes of more than 300 people suspected of contracting the illness abroad, with 46 of those cases confirmed. Calls from frightened residents rose in the past week to 50 a day from six, and Vasquez has begun joining his inspectors in the field.
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If Zika spreads locally, it’s going to start soon. Vasquez wouldn’t do anything fancy with federal money. He would just hire.
“What you need in this particular situation is people,” Vasquez said during what would become a contentious inspection of a lush front-yard garden. “What you need now is boots on the ground.”
On Wednesday, Republican Gov. Rick Scott asked Obama to send preparedness kits and resources to kill and study mosquitoes.
“Despite repeated calls for action, Congress has failed to act and they are now on vacation,” Scott wrote in a letter to the president.
The money held up in Congress could help countries where Zika has already become a pandemic, pay for research and fund the search for a vaccine. The inaction is also starving the nation’s mosquito control network, the front line of the fight. Vasquez’s small army in Miami-Dade shows how difficult the fight will be.
“A lot of the money and funds are going to go to the vaccine, but it should go to mosquito control, because at this point, that’s the only way to control the vector of the disease,” Vasquez said.
Scratching for resources
Vasquez, a 58-year-old Nicaraguan native, oversees one of 947 mosquito-control districts in the United States. The network is patchy, with wide variations in resources. Vasquez’s $1.6 million budget, which also pays for two part-timers and seasonal reinforcements, competes with other county priorities for funding.
By the time his team learns whether local mosquitoes are spreading Zika, they’ll also be dealing with thousands of calls from residents upset with merely annoying species that are about to rise up as summer rains flood marshes. Vasquez will double his traps from 15 to 30 this week, each having to be dropped off and picked up daily. He’s signed up contractors to help. He’ll know if it’s enough when he sees how bad the mosquitoes are going to be: “There is some indication that it’s going to be a very active year.”
About 140 miles (225 kilometers) away, a special tax supports a district near Fort Myers with a $17 million budget and resources Miami-Dade can only dream of: Huey helicopters, laboratories and specially outfitted trucks. That area has had only five travel-related Zika cases.
The virus is named after the Ugandan forest where it was first isolated more than 70 years ago. The first cases in South America were reported in 2015; it’s now a pandemic there. Although it typically has mild symptoms, it can cause severe birth defects, including unusually small heads that impede brain development.
Zika can also cause Guillain Barre Syndrome, a condition that can cause paralysis in people of any age.
The U.S. threat isn’t theoretical: On Tuesday, a baby was born with microcephaly at a New Jersey hospital, Hackensack University Medical Center, as a result of the Zika virus, according to a statement from the hospital. The mother, whose name wasn’t disclosed, is visiting the United States and contracted Zika while in Honduras, according to the statement.
Rutgers University insect specialists said they believe mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus could arrive in New Jersey in July.
Zika has also caused birth defects in a baby who was born in Hawaii. The mother of that baby contracted the disease while in Brazil.
As with two other diseases that have traveled to the United States from Latin and Central America in recent years, Dengue fever and Chikungunya, there is no vaccine. The best protection is to not get bitten.
Vasquez, an entomologist, is now in his fifth year as head of mosquito control, after beginning as an exterminator 25 years ago. He has a small decal of a mosquito on his truck and the slogan “Bite Me,” and can catch a mosquito with a bare hand — or says he can.