With the summer season underway and the swarms of mosquitoes that come with it actively abuzz, health officials have grown increasingly concerned about the danger the Zika virus poses to Americans here at home.
To fend off the threat of the mosquito-borne illness, Democratic leaders in both state and national governments have called for more funding to expand testing protocols, coordinate a multiagency response, and educate residents on how to stay safe.
While the virus — which has infected more than 1,000 Americans who were traveling abroad, including at least 50 from New Jersey — has not yet taken root in North America, experts believe it is only a matter of time until mosquitoes here are carriers. (The species in question is not native to the Garden State, but it has visited and is expected to settle down here in the future.)
In New Jersey, Democratic lawmakers included $5 million in their budget proposal last month to help local governments address the potential threat and to beef up the state’s response to Zika, which can cause devastating birth defects. They fear the state is particularly at risk because one in five residents hails from abroad, increasing the chances that they could be infected when visiting their home country.
But Gov. Chris Christie slashed that line item as he vetoed nearly $300 million from the Democrat’s spending plan for fiscal year 2017, which took effect July 1.
Less than 12 hours later, the federal government announced it would distribute $25 million to help at-risk states and their local communities address the growing threat of Zika — including $424,000 for New Jersey.
The Department of Health is now wrapping up plans on how to invest these dollars, but a representative said it would generally be used to continue the state’s aggressive public awareness campaign, expand laboratory services, and coordinate prevention and response efforts with local officials and community partners. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which awarded the funding, said it can also be used to buy basic protections like bug spray and mosquito nets for those that need them most.
Christie’s office said Monday that the veto of Zika funding was part of the governor’s overall effort to rein in the Democrat’s “reckless spending plan,” not a decision that anticipated the federal funding award. But the money may pay for some of the same services. Democratic leaders provided few details on their proposal after the fact, but the budget language they drafted (and Christie vetoed) called for the state health commissioner to allocate the $5 million for training county and municipal health officers and for other preventative measures.
[related]The disparity in Trenton also echoes the partisan divide in Washington, when it comes to Zika. The Obama administration and Democratic allies in Congress have blasted the Republican leadership for not supporting their version of a bill that would commit more than $1 billion toward Zika prevention and research, including a search for a vaccine. While the disease has long been a concern in some parts of the world, it was first discovered in the Americas in 2015 — in Brazil — and has since been found in dozens of countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean.
“It’s midsummer, mosquitoes are out in full force, but many of our best tools to fight Zika are still on the sidelines,” lamented Dr. Ed McCabe, chief medical officer for the March of Dimes, during a conference call last week with reporters organized by the White House. The organization, which advocates for healthy babies, leads a coalition of 80 groups calling for additional federal funding and will join a Twitter chat with White House officials at noon on Wednesday.
McCabe said research is proving Zika to be more dangerous — and more infectious — than previously thought. Doctors confirmed this spring that the infection leads to microcephaly, a dangerous birth defect in which a baby’s skull is too small for its brain. While the infection cannot be transmitted by casual contact, researchers are still learning about how it can be passed through sex. Some carriers never show signs of the infection and others suffer what are usually mild, flu-like symptoms.
However, on Monday officials confirmed that an elderly man in Utah was the first American to die from symptoms related the disease, which he contracted while abroad. (The first Zika birth in the continental U.S. came in June, when doctors at Hackensack University Hospital delivered a baby with microcephaly; the mother contracted the disease while living abroad.)
“The news about Zika is not getting better,” McCabe said. “We need action and we need it now.” The March of Dimes also maintains information on the disease in English and Spanish on its websites.
New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone (D-Monmouth) blasted the GOP in Washington and Trenton for continuing to “play political games” instead of dealing with the Zika threat. “ I am outraged that Republicans have failed to recognize the urgency of this public health crisis and have failed to protect American families,” Pallone said. “Zika presents a serious threat to global health and security, and we must address that threat decisively, not play politics.”