At the request of Governor Alejandro García Padilla, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell has declared a public health emergency for Puerto Rico, signaling that the current spread of the Zika virus poses a significant threat to public health in the Commonwealth, particularly with regard to pregnant women and to children born to pregnant women with Zika virus infection.
The last time the HHS declared such an emergency was in 2012 in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, which slammed into the New Jersey shore and flooded parts of New York City.
It was the second important step to fight Zika that the federal government has taken in recent days. On August 11, the Obama administration said it had shifted $81 million in funds from other projects to continue work on developing vaccines to fight the Zika virus in the absence of funding from U.S. lawmakers.
According to the Puerto Rico Department of Health, as of August 12 there were 10,690 laboratory-confirmed cases of Zika virus infection in Puerto Rico, including 1,035 pregnant women. The actual number of people infected with Zika likely is higher because most people with Zika infections have no symptoms and might not seek testing.
Through the public health emergency declaration, the government of Puerto Rico can apply for funding to hire and train unemployed workers to assist in vector control and outreach and education efforts through the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Dislocated Worker Grant program. The government of Puerto Rico can also request the temporary reassignment of local public health department or agency personnel who are funded through Public Health Service Act programs to assist in the Zika response.
In related news, three more people in the Miami–Dade area of southern Florida have developed Zika infections from the bites of local mosquitoes, bringing the total to 28. On August 12, the HHS announced that the number of Zika cases in that state had reached 486, nearly doubling the cases since July 1. Cases have been reported in 33 of Florida’s 67 counties. An additional 21 travel-related cases were reported by the HHS, for a total of 404. Those cases stemmed from people who were infected elsewhere and brought the virus into Florida.
Governor Rick Scott told reporters that he has yet to hear from the federal government on his request for 10,000 Zika prevention kits for pregnant women or on a plan that would allow Florida access to funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).