As the Zika outbreak expands in Florida, Gov. Rick Scott on Monday 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.
“With the announcement of this new (Palm Beach County) case, and the upcoming new school year, I have directed DOH (the Department of Health) and DOE (the Department of Education) to closely work together to ensure students, parents, educators and district leaders have all the resources and guidance they need to combat the Zika virus,” Scott said in a statement.
Scott, who met with St. Johns County officials on Monday to review Zika response plans, 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.
Note: The Miami Herald has an excellent tracker of Zika cases in each Florida county, here.
–Lloyd Dunkleberger, News Service of Florida