ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – Less than an hour before Gov. Rick Scott hosted a roundtable discussion on the Zika virus in St. Johns County, the governor announced that another non-travel-related case of the virus had been found in Florida, this time in Palm Beach County.
As the Zika outbreak expands in Florida, Scott directed education officials to protect students heading back to public schools, state colleges and universities, including distributing mosquito repellent to schools in South Florida, where the disease is the most prevalent.
The majority of Florida's 2.7 million public-school students return to classrooms on Wednesday, followed later in the month by hundreds of thousands of students beginning their fall semesters at state colleges and universities.
The state Department of Health announced on Monday a new non-travel-related Zika case in Palm Beach County, bringing to 17 the number of cases linked to infections acquired in Florida. That is on top of 357 travel-related cases and another 55 cases involving pregnant women, for a total of 429.
Leon County also reported its first travel-related case, meaning 30 of Florida's 67 counties have cases stemming from people traveling outside the continental U.S., with Miami-Dade County claiming 106 of the total. The mosquito-borne virus, which emerged last year in South America, is particularly dangerous to pregnant women and can cause severe birth defects.
Scott's said the Department of Health is investigating to determine the source of the infection, including door-to-door outreach and sampling. Mosquito abatement and reduction activities are also taking place, Scott said.
Scott said the DOH still believes active transmissions are only taking place within the identified area that covers less than 1 square mile in Miami-Dade County.
Speaking to various county department heads at the St. Johns Health Department, Scott said he was there to get ideas.
"Find out what local needs are. As you know we’ve allocated $26.2 million out of the state budget to the Department of Health to help our local mosquito control efforts," Scott said. "We’re still frustrated the federal government has not done more."
Scott has directed the DOH, the Florida Department of Education and the State University System of Florida Board of Governors to partner together to provide Zika prevention guidance and resources to students, parents, educators and district leaders across the state.
“DOH, DOE and the Florida Board of Governors will begin distributing Zika teacher tool kits and materials for school districts, public state colleges and public universities to help educate students and their families. All districts and public education facilities will also be connected with their local health departments for the opportunity to train school clinic nurses and staff on Zika prevention," Scott said. “Today, I will also be meeting with members of Florida’s K-12 public school system, the Florida College System and the State University System of Florida to discuss what actions they are taking at their schools and campuses, and we will continue to keep an open line of communication with education leaders across the state.”
Schools across the state will be starting a campaign called "Spill the Water" designed to teach children to watch out for standing water, which can be a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
"The whole goal is to one -- get ideas. Find out what local needs are. As you know, we've allocated $26.2 million out of the state budget to the Department of Health to help our local mosquito control efforts, help our Department of Health, help through education. We're still frustrated the federal government has not done more. Congress went on recess," Scott said.
St. Johns County's superintendent told Scott the district has changed its policy on the type of medicines allowed in schools to include mosquito repellents.
A representative from Flagler Hospital told Scott that the Ebola scare a few years ago helped the hospital prepare for outbreaks like Zika and called the response a "no-brainer."
As of Monday, there were 429 cases of Zika in Florida. The majority are travel-related.
There are now 17 cases that were locally transmitted, meaning people contracted the virus through mosquitoes in Florida. Scott said state health officials still believe the 17 Florida cases all originated in the Wynwood neighborhood in Miami-Dade County, with the person involved in the new Palm Beach case having recently traveled to Miami.
But Scott has asked state health and education officials to take a number of steps to protect students across the state. Those steps include:
- Distributing insect repellent to public schools, colleges and universities in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Martin and Monroe counties
- Requiring schools and universities to have procedures in place to promptly deal with suspected Zika cases
- Linking schools with local health departments so that clinic nurses and staff can be trained in the prevention and identification of Zika cases
- Distributing posters, palm cards, door hangers and other Zika-awareness material to be used on campuses and sent home with students
- Providing a Department of Health “teacher toolkit” that will allow teachers to include Zika messages and activities in lessons
- Distributing Zika awareness materials to voluntary pre-kindergarten and other school-readiness programs
“It's a great opportunity to utilize all the resources that are available and our educators to help our students and our communities understand what to do,” Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said.
Scott said he would meet with education leaders at all levels "to discuss what actions they are taking at their schools and campuses and we will continue to keep an open line of communication with education leaders across the state."
As the Florida Zika cases increase, a major credit-rating agency has warned the virus could have an impact on the state's tourism industry and related revenues, including sales taxes, gas taxes and hotel bed taxes.
The Miami-Herald reported that Moody's has warned Miami and Miami-Dade County about a potential "credit negative" if the Zika outbreak persists into the middle of the winter tourism season in South Florida and affects tourism-related taxes. The rating agency noted that a warning from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for pregnant women to avoid the Wynwood neighborhood is the first time in the CDC's 70-year history that it has declared a travel ban on a U.S. location.
Meanwhile, Visit Florida, the state's main tourism-promotion organization, has created a Zika web page to provide information and "talking points" on the mosquito-borne disease.
Visit Florida said the safety of visitors, who totaled 106 million last year, remained the "highest priority" for the state's tourism industry.
It also noted the Department of Health's belief that all the locally transmitted Zika cases "to date" are confined to the Wynwood neighborhood and buffer zone in Miami.
"For perspective, that's a one-square-mile area in a state that covers more than 65,000 square miles," Visit Florida said.