Tourists urged not to panic about Zika's spread in Florida
MIAMI (AP) - There's no official warning to stay clear of Florida, but the crowds that usually wander among the bold street murals in Miami's trendy Wynwood arts district may be thinner after reports that mosquitoes in the area have spread the Zika virus on the U.S. mainland for the first time.
Officials are trying to reassure tourists they'll be safe when visiting Florida's theme parks and urban arts districts. But some Miami residents said Friday they were stocking up on mosquito repellent and planning to bring lunches to work instead of sitting at outdoor cafe tables under Wynwood's bright murals.
"I'm freaking out ... but at the same time I don't want to freak out," said Wynwood resident Zoe Schultze as she cradled her 6-month-old son in her arms while she stopped for coffee with her husband.
No mosquitoes in Miami or elsewhere in Florida have tested positive for Zika, but four Miami-area patients who contracted the disease did not get it by traveling to an outbreak country or from sex with an infected person. Officials say those four are apparently the first of over 1,650 U.S. Zika cases to have gotten the disease from a mosquito in the U.S.
Gov. Rick Scott pinpointed the infections to Wynwood, and the state's agriculture commissioner issued a mosquito declaration that triggers aggressive mosquito control efforts within a 200-yard radius of the homes of the patients with locally acquired cases.
Leasing agent Crystal Armand said she'd avoid the area's boutiques and art galleries for a while. "I'll probably bring lunch for a couple more weeks until they clear it up," she said.
The director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday there were no plans to recommend limiting travel to South Florida.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he's confident in local mosquito control because they've successfully fought off outbreaks of West Nile, dengue fever and chikungunya. Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs said repellent is sold at entrances to the Orlando area's three major theme parks.
"If you're coming to Florida as a tourist, if you're coming to the theme parks, then you're coming to some of the safest places in the world because they have mosquito control down like no place else," said Jacobs.
The theme parks are known for keeping their properties well-maintained. Officials say the parks also have far bigger mosquito control operations than local governments.
"They keep their property very clean, spic and span," said Carl Boohene, director of mosquito control in Polk County, where LEGOLAND Florida is located.
Walt Disney World is surrounded by swamps and woodland areas, which aren't habitat for the mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus, said Kelly Deutsch, acting manager of Orange County's mosquito control.
The Aedes aegypti mosquitoes prefer living among people in urban areas. While Universal Orlando and SeaWorld are in Orlando, nothing around them is cause for concern, Deutsch said.
"Most of these areas are pretty well manicured and maintained," she said.
Osceola County mosquito control officials have been talking with independent and mom-and-pop hotels near Disney that may not contract pest control like national hotel chains. "What we have been doing is going out to the hotels and talking to the maintenance staff and educating them what to look for, because going out and mowing the grass and just keeping the place clean isn't the same as looking for standing water," said Terry Torrens, the county's mosquito control director.
Repellent is available at LEGOLAND Florida, which follows county guidelines for mosquito spraying and removing standing water where insects can breed. "We also offer several air conditioned attractions, including the newly reimagined imagination zone if they'd prefer to spend time indoors," resort spokeswoman Brittany Williams said in an email.
A Disney spokeswoman referred questions about its Zika preparedness to the CDC guidelines for preventing mosquito bites. Officials at Universal Orlando and SeaWorld did not respond to emails asking for information.
The parks intensified their fight against nuisance mosquitoes over a decade ago when the West Nile virus first surfaced in the U.S., said industry consultant Dennis Speigel.
"It's something that goes on daily, multiple times a day. They spend a ton on it," he said.
The state activated a Zika information hotline for residents and visitors, and health officials have led public campaigns reminding people to wear repellent. Visitors to South Florida in the last month have been urged to put off donating blood.
Anyone bitten by mosquitoes in Florida could help public health experts trying to track the disease through the Mosquito Byte! smartphone app , a project led by North Carolina State University entomologist Michael Reiskind.
Women who are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant should take extra precautions. The health risk will drop further in the fall after the region's mosquito season peak, Reiskind said.
"It seems a likely place to see a pathogen emerge because there's lots of travelers," he said. "But if there's good mosquito control, it doesn't matter, you won't get transmission."
Associated Press writer Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida, contributed to this report.