By James Rosen
The first officially reported death Friday in the United States from Zika-related complications, a 70-year-old man in Puerto Rico, intensified a partisan battle on Capitol Hill over $1.9 billion in emergency funds blocked for two months by Republicans.
With Florida claiming the highest number of cases of the deadly virus, lawmakers from the Sunshine State pushed GOP leaders to take up the appropriations supplemental bill that President Barrack Obama sent to Congress two months ago.
"The death of an American citizen should serve as a wake-up call to all those in Congress who continue to block our efforts to stop the spread of this virus," Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said. "While this may be the first Zika-related death in our country, it won't be the last if Congress does not start taking this virus seriously."
Nelson last week filed legislation to provide the $1.9 billion in emergency funds for Zika research, most of which would go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Benjamin Haynes, a spokesman for the CDC, said Friday that the Puerto Rican man, from the metro area of the U.S. territory's capital of San Juan, died earlier this year.
"He had Zika, the Zika had cleared, but shortly after, he started bleeding internally," Haynes told McClatchy. "He went to hospital. That's when he died."
The unidentified man's death was first documented in the CDC's weekly report on the mosquito-borne virus. The official cause of death was thrombocytopenia, a severe drop in the number of platelets that can lead to severe bleeding.
"I'm saddened to learn that we have already suffered our first death from the Zika virus, and my thoughts are with the victim's family," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said. "As I've said for months, this is an unfolding public health crisis in Florida and Puerto Rico and, soon, other parts of the nation."
Wasserman Schultz, who is chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, added: "We need House Republicans to stop dragging their feet on emergency supplemental funding for Zika and join President Obama and congressional Democrats by taking immediate action to arrest this burgeoning health crisis."
While the Zika virus is spread primarily by two types of mosquitoes, Wasserman Schultz cited recent evidence that it can also be sexually transmitted.
Wasserman Schultz earlier this week introduced legislation to provide the $1.9 billion. She was joined by Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.
Puerto Rico has 599 cases of Zika, according to CDC data, far more than any other state or territory. Florida has 93 cases and New York has 77, which combined represents 40 percent of all cases nationwide.
The biggest health threat from Zika is to pregnant women and their newborn children.
One of the most serious effects of the virus is microcephaly, which causes babies' heads to be much smaller than normal. Zika can also cause brain damage, seizures, developmental delays, intellectual disabilities, feeding problems, hearing loss and vision problems in infants.
Female Democratic senators spoke out forcefully Thursday in a prolonged partisan fight over the emergency Zika funding on the Senate floor, among them Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Patty Murray of Washington state.
Sen. Marco Rubio, the failed 2016 GOP White House candidate, broke with other GOP senators in a passionate plea for the emergency funds.
On a recent trip back home, the Florida Republican said, he met with local and state public health officials and representatives of Florida's 1 million-strong Puerto Rican community, the nation's largest.
"I met with doctors who live in Miami-Dade County and also officials in Miami-Dade County," Rubio said. "They are freaked out about the Zika thing. I don't know any other term to use. If they are freaked out, then I am very concerned about it as well."
Rubio warned that with a large number of Zika cases already documented in Brazil, tens of thousands of people potentially exposed to the virus will travel through Florida and other states to and from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
"It is the obligation of the federal government to keep our people safe, and this is an imminent and real threat to the public safety and security of our nation and our people," Rubio said. "So the money is going to be spent. The question is: Do we do it now, before this has become a crisis, or do we wait for it to become a crisis?"
Senate Republicans, however, said that emergency funding was not needed. They said previously appropriated money to combat the Ebola virus, which first broke out in West Africa almost three years ago, could be shifted for Zika research and treatment.
If additional Zika funds are needed, they said, the money could be provided through the normal appropriations process now underway in Congress.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, noted that Ebola turned out to be less of a threat than originally predicted in suggesting that the current concern over Zika could be overblown.
"Our (Democratic) friends across the aisle have requested a $1.9 billion blank check, and they haven't told us what the plan is for the use of the funds," Cornyn said.
Saying the emergency funds would be "deficit spending that adds to the debt," Cornyn said: "The (Nelson) legislation completely lacks any sort of accountability that would only come through a regular appropriations process where we consider this in a deliberate sort of way."
CDC spokesman Haynes, however, said the supplemental money is needed now.
"There's a lot of work that needs to be done to help in this outbreak of the Zika virus with surveillance and trying to find a vaccine," he said. "The biggest threat is to pregnant women. All of our efforts are focused on trying to fight this outbreak and protect pregnant women."
(c)2016 McClatchy Washington Bureau