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How are health officials protecting Duval County from Zika?

Director of county's health department addresses concerns of City Council

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The director of the Duval County Department of Health spoke to City Council members Tuesday about what's happening in Jacksonville to protect the community from the Zika virus.

Dr. Kelli Wells said the health department is having weekly Zika task force meetings at the Emergency Operations Center, including one Tuesday. The meetings are closed door.

Wells said Tuesday that many people associate the mosquitoes that carry Zika with bodies of water, like retention ponds. But the mosquitoes that carry the virus can thrive in just a teaspoonful of water, serving as a reminder that they could be lingering in common items outside homes, like children's toys and flower pots.

“The concern is there has been an infection of the local mosquitoes in the Miami area and in Broward County, so contact investigations were ongoing to try to interrupt transmission and to learn as much as we can in terms of how exactly it's occurring,” Wells said. “A lot of our focus has been on either the fact that the cases we were seeing were travel-associated and our jobs with the Department of Health and with our mosquito control division was to protect our mosquito population and prevent that eventuality of local transmission.”

She said there are two major concerns with the Zika virus in Jacksonville.

“One is Floridians expect to be bitten by mosquitoes, so it's not information I think people are receiving and applying as efficiently and as regularly as we'd like,” Wells said.

She is also concerned that only 20 percent of people infected with the virus have symptoms.

“So our surveillance methods really have to do with those who come from an area that is endemic and develop symptoms, but four out of five of those folks are going to have symptoms, and we don't at present have the resources to test all of those folks, so we've had to prioritize when it comes to our testing,” Wells said.

In addition to having weekly local Zika task force meetings, Wells said the health department meets with officials from other counties and has weekly calls with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During Tuesday morning's meeting, Councilman Tommy Hazouri asked if the six Zika cases in Duval are located in a specific area.

“They tend to be scattered, because remember all of these have been travel-associated, so they tend to have traveled for whatever reason,” Wells said. “They return to their homes and begin to go about their business, so the span of cases really hasn't been focused on a particular area. Our responsibility becomes knowing where these mosquitoes live and breed, No. 1, and No. 2, recognizing where we might have an information gap in terms of access to the actual information from people who become symptomatic when they return.”

Hazouri said keeping the Zika virus out of Jacksonville is crucial, and he believes Wells and the health department are doing a great job with prevention.

“We don't want it to spread any more than it is,” Hazouri said. “I think Dr. Wells has done an excellent job, and hopefully, we're doing what we need to do to work with her in a partnership to prevent this from spreading more in the North Florida area. It doesn't just stop in Jacksonville, obviously, it transcends all over the county.”

Wells said mosquito surveillance in Duval County goes on year round, with or without Zika, and if there's a confirmed case, they assess that area and talk to people where the case was confirmed.

Wells told council members that the health department is also staying in contact with local obstetrician offices to make sure pregnant women who have traveled to Zika-infected countries, as well as the Miami area that's of concern, have the resources they need.