Mosquitoes are spreading Zika virus in Miami Beach, according to sources familiar with discussions held by the Florida Department of Health on Thursday to alert local officials.
The health department’s daily report said only that there were two new local infections in Miami-Dade acquired through mosquitoes — both outside of the Wynwood neighborhood identified as the only area in the state with ongoing transmission. The department did not respond to questions about active transmission of Zika in Miami Beach, the heart of the region’s tourism industry.
But in an email to Miami Beach commissioners, City Manager Jimmy Morales noted that the two new Zika infections were found in the resort city.
“I have been informed that two Zika cases have been linked to Miami Beach, one a tourist who visited the Beach approximately two weeks ago, and another a resident who also works on the Beach,” Morales said in the email.
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, fresh off a plane from New York late Thursday, urged calm.
“There is no epidemic, no outbreak of Zika in Miami Beach,” he said.
Levine said health officials told him there were two cases of Zika being investigated with possible links to Miami Beach, and he insisted there was no confirmation yet that they were transmitted in the city.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to advise pregnant women to avoid domestic travel to a one-square-mile area of Wynwood. And Florida Gov. Rick Scott repeated on Thursday that he believes Zika is spreading only in that area, even as the number of local infections outside the square mile increased to nine cases, with one in Palm Beach County and eight in other parts of Miami-Dade.
“Tourism is a driving force of Florida’s economy and this industry has the full support of our state in the fight against the Zika virus,” Scott said in the statement, noting that the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity would be surveying local businesses to assess their needs.
Scott also ordered the state’s health agency and the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to provide educational materials and free pesticide spraying to local businesses.
While the state devotes resources to protecting Florida’s tourism industry, however, it lacks the ability to provide free Zika testing for more than just all pregnant women, as Scott has ordered.
Demand for Zika testing increased almost tenfold in Florida over the past weeks, according to a report issued Thursday by Aetna, one of the nation’s largest health insurers, which noted that the number of Florida members who received Zika testing rose from 27 the week of July 25 to 200 the week of Aug. 8.
The state health department has tested more than 3,673 people statewide for the disease, and Florida currently has the capacity to test 4,997 people for active Zika virus and 2,799 for Zika antibodies.
“It seems to be absurd that people who want to be tested to quantify the severity of this virus can’t even be tested,” said Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola, who called on the CDC and federal government to send more test kits and resources to Florida.
Florida health officials have confirmed 35 local Zika infections so far, with all but nine cases occurring in the Wynwood area. The health department said it is conducting nine active investigations into local Zika cases.
In addition, the department announced 18 new travel-related cases on Thursday, with seven in Miami-Dade, four in Palm Beach, three in Broward, one in Brevard, one in Lee, one in Marion and one in Pinellas counties. A total of 577 people in Florida have contracted Zika this year, according to the health department, including 63 pregnant women.
South Florida’s hospitality industry has dreaded the possibility of Zika spreading to Miami Beach because the region’s economy relies heavily on its $24 billion-a-year tourism industry. More than half of the hotel rooms in Miami-Dade are located in Miami Beach.
Starting early Thursday morning, Miami Beach public works officials and code compliance officers were dispatched to neighborhoods to inspect for mosquito breeding sites.
Morales said in the email to commissioners that the city is in constant communication with the health department regarding the most effective approach to mosquito control.
“Our strategy has been and will continue to be focusing on the elimination of potential breeding sites and educating our residents and businesses on what they need to do,” Morales said in the email. “We are also working with the county and they are also inspecting and as needed mitigating through techniques like clean ups, larvicides and fogging.”
The first area in the continental United States with ongoing Zika transmission was identified by Scott on July 29, when he announced that the virus was being spread by local mosquitoes in Wynwood.
Since then the number of new Zika infections outside of Wynwood has risen steadily. On Wednesday, the health department reported three new local Zika infections in Miami-Dade, including one inside the Wynwood zone and two others outside of it.
Epidemiologists continue to interview residents and collect blood and urine samples inside the designated zone, but they also have launched investigations in other areas with local cases.
Florida health officials have said repeatedly that one case does not mean active transmission is occurring in an area. Instead, health officials investigate each case by interviewing and taking blood and urine samples from close contacts and neighbors around each infected person.
The Zika response plan published by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in June notes that “a starting point” for defining an area of local transmission is two or more infections (not related to travel or sex) among people who do not share the same household, occurring within a one-mile diameter in two or more weeks.