Zika Tests Florida Governor's Leadership

by | August 8, 2016 AT 1:10 PM

By Michael Auslen and Steve Bousquet

A hurricane hasn't hit Florida on Gov. Rick Scott's watch, but he finds himself trying to guide the state through a more insidious and nearly invisible public health threat.

Call it Hurricane Zika.

As mosquitoes spread the virus in Miami-Dade County, it falls on the governor to show steady leadership, manage an effective response and allay public fears.

At times, Scott has convincingly played that role. For months he has called attention to the threat, declaring a state of emergency in February, demanding more federal aid, and offering free Zika testing for pregnant women statewide.

Yet his response at key moments has been just as tentative. Even though he promised $26.2 million to combat Zika in late June, the state had released only $1.9 million by Friday, according to Department of Health documents.

Of that, $316,800 went to Miami-Dade County and $221,635 went to Broward. The rest went to 24 counties where no local transmissions of Zika have been reported.

Most of the money given out thus far is for prevention, health department spokeswoman Sarah Revell said. If new outbreaks occur, the state is ready to spend more.

"The department understands their needs will increase and we are prepared to support counties by providing additional resources and funding," Revell said.

The Zika threat is a major test of Scott's communication skills.

He has yet to use his bully pulpit to talk directly to Floridians, unedited on live TV, as his predecessors did during hurricanes.

But he has appeared on CBS, Fox News, MSNBC, CNBC and CNN, and each time, he chided the feds for not doing more.

"We're just the tip of the spear," Scott told CNBC. "They should be our partner, and they haven't been our partner so far."

Some experts say the state can do a better job making sure people know how to prevent the outbreak from spreading: get rid of standing water, wear bug spray and know the symptoms.

"The response publicly has been probably more hand-waving than putting boots on the ground," said Paul Linser, a biologist and member of the Florida Coordinating Council on Mosquito Control. "Awareness is extremely important, but awareness has to go beyond the panic of, 'Oh, my gosh, this disease is here.' "

Linser said information from state and local governments has been informative but he worries it hasn't been effective at changing behavior.

State Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a Republican whose district includes part of the Wynwood neighborhood where nearly all of the cases have been reported, said the state response has been generally good but said there's a need for more support to stop the virus' spread.

"We clearly need as many [resources] as possible to keep it from spreading," he said. "So I'm making as much noise and asking for as much as possible."

By year's end, Miami-Dade is supposed to receive an additional $740,000 from the state, said state Surgeon General Dr. Celeste Philip, who was in Miami all week to coordinate state and local response.

Early in Scott's tenure as governor, mosquitoes weren't a pressing priority.

In 2011, Scott and the Legislature cut the state's mosquito control budget by $872,800 to $1.3 million. That year, Scott also vetoed a $500,000 grant for a mosquito research lab at Florida A&M University, which led to its closure.

Mosquito control funding has more than doubled since then. This year, the state budget includes $2.8 million in aid to local governments, more than it ever included under Gov. Charlie Crist, Scott's predecessor.

That's in addition to the $26.2 million in emergency money Scott promised in June.

Walter Tabachnick, director of the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory in Vero Beach, wrote a 2011 blog post charging that Scott's veto could have negative long-term effects on the state's ability to stop mosquito-borne diseases. But Tabachnick told the Herald/Times in June that state support for mosquito control has recovered.

"That was a bad period when this all happened," Tabachnick said. "These funds have been more than amply restored."

Mosquito control officials across the state say Zika planning and coordination among governments has been generally good. Dennis Moore, Pasco County's mosquito control director, said the state has helped set up planning exercises and provided free mosquito traps.

Moore said he expects to have Zika spread to Tampa Bay.

"We have no way of knowing, but I wouldn't be terribly surprised if we do," Moore said.

So far, it's difficult to measure how effective the state and federal response has been.

Dr. Scott Weaver, director of the Institute for Human Infections and Immunity at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, said there's a lag time of at least a week between infection and diagnosis.

"It's important to know how many more people have been sampled outside [Wynwood] and how much information there is about where the virus has spread beyond that point," Weaver said.

Not until Thursday -- six days after cases of locally transmitted Zika cases in Miami were announced -- did Scott himself visit the stricken area.

Instead, he attended events in faraway Pinellas Park and Panama City and spoke with leaders in Miami by phone. His delayed presence at Zika's Ground Zero was notable for Scott, whose personal jet allows him to cross the state quickly.

But it's not as if Scott is disengaged on the issue.

Since declaring a public health emergency in February, he has held 11 roundtable talks with local leaders. In May, he went to Washington to meet with members of Congress and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell.

The meetings with local governments have helped, said Rob Krueger, an entomology and education specialist with Pinellas County Mosquito Control.

"Having the governor personally stop by your county to make sure you're good to go, that's a good thing," Krueger said. "As far as Pinellas County is concerned, I don't see any negligence on [the state's] part whatsoever or anything extra they could be doing."

Scott is winning praise from at least one high-profile observer.

"You have a great governor who's doing a fantastic job, Rick Scott, on the Zika," Donald Trump told CBS12 of West Palm Beach. "He's going to have it under control. He probably already does."

Miami Herald staff writers Daniel Chang and David Smiley contributed to this report.

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