Florida’s underfunded fight against Zika
Local mosquito-control efforts can’t keep up with the bugs “What you need now is boots on the ground”
Mosquito season has arrived in South Florida, and that means the Zika virus is coming, too. Some areas are prepared. The mosquito-control district for Fort Myers, on the Gulf Coast, has a $17 million budget funded by a local tax that pays for trucks, labs, and Huey helicopters equipped
to fly pesticide-spraying missions.
Chalmers Vasquez can only dream of those resources. He’s the operations manager for Miami-Dade County’s mosquito-control district, which has a $1.6 million annual budget to cover Florida’s most populous region.
Miami-Dade is ground zero for Zika in the continental U.S., with 46 cases reported as of May 25. All were acquired by people traveling abroad or through sexual contact with such people. Vasquez worries that may change as the local population of Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that carries the virus, explodes. “What you need in this particular situation is people,” he says. “What you need now is boots on the ground.”
Five months ago, President Obama asked Congress to allocate $1.9 billion to fight the virus, but Republican lawmakers have so far failed to deliver. Some of the White House request was dedicated to assistance for Puerto Rico and countries where Zika has already reached epidemic levels, as well as grants for vaccine research. But it also included $453 million for domestic mosquito-fighting efforts— money Vasquez says is crucial to stopping Zika. “At this point that’s the only way to control the vector of the disease,” he says.
Vasquez, an entomologist, is in his fifth year overseeing mosquito control in Miami-Dade. He started as an exterminator 25 years ago. “I always liked bugs,” Vasquez says. His truck is decorated with a decal of a mosquito and the words “Bite Me.”
In 2014 he managed the response to dengue and chikungunya, tropical diseases also borne by A. aegypti. Now it’s all Zika all the time. Calls from residents rose in the last week of May to 50 a day, from six. Vasquez has begun joining his team of 12 inspectors in the field, setting out traps and visiting homes and businesses where mosquitoes have been spotted.
On one call, Vasquez paid a visit to Eda Harris, a South Miami
homeowner whose husband had reported standing water in the swimming pool of a vacant home next door. Vasquez found no A. aegypti until he looked in Harris’s yard, where larvae were growing in a clay pot the size of a Dixie cup and in a saucer sitting under a planter. Citing a municipal ban on insecticide use, Harris stopped Vasquez from spraying and called the mayor, Philip Stoddard, a Florida International University biology professor who helped enact the ban. When the mayor showed up, Vasquez explained the state’s health emergency declaration supersedes city ordinances but agreed to check with the county’s attorney before spraying. Says Vasquez: “This could be a big problem.”
The bottom line Miami-Dade, which has the most Zika infections in the continental U.S., allots only $1.6 million a year for mosquito control.
A Miami-Dade mosquito inspector sprays pesticide on May 26