Mosquito season starts in earnest this week in the 2,000 square miles of Florida’s Miami-Dade County, which has had the most Zika cases in the U.S. To stop the insects and the epidemic they threaten, Chalmers Vasquez has just 12 full-time inspectors.
Five months ago, President Barack Obama asked Congress to allocate $1.9 billion to fight the virus, but lawmakers haven’t acted. In that time, the inspectors whom Vasquez oversees as director of the mosquito-control district have hunted the pests at the homes of more than 300 people suspected of contracting the illness abroad, with 46 of those cases confirmed. Calls from frightened residents rose in the past week to 50 a day from six, and Vasquez has begun joining his inspectors in the field.
If Zika spreads locally, it’s going to start soon. Vasquez wouldn’t do anything fancy with federal money. He would just hire.
“What you need in this particular situation is people,” Vasquez said during what would become a contentious inspection of a lush front-yard garden. “What you need now is boots on the ground.”
On Wednesday, Republican Governor Rick Scott asked Obama to send preparedness kits and resources to kill and study mosquitoes.
“Despite repeated calls for action, Congress has failed to act and they are now on vacation,” Scott wrote in a letter to the president.
The money held up in Congress could help countries where Zika has already become a pandemic, pay for research and fund the search for a vaccine. The inaction is also starving the nation’s mosquito control network, the front line of the fight. Vasquez’s small army in Miami-Dade shows how difficult the fight will be.
“A lot of the money and funds are going to go to the vaccine, but it should go to mosquito control, because at this point, that’s the only way to control the vector of the disease,” Vasquez said.
Scratching for Resources
Vasquez, a 58-year-old Nicaraguan native, oversees one of 947 mosquito-control districts in the U.S. The network is patchy, with wide variations in resources. Vasquez’s $1.6 million budget, which also pays for two part-timers and seasonal reinforcements, competes with other county priorities for funding.
By the time his team learns whether local mosquitoes are spreading Zika, they’ll also be dealing with thousands of calls from residents upset with merely annoying species that are about to rise up as summer rains flood marshes. Vasquez will double his traps from 15 to 30 this week, each having to be dropped off and picked up daily. He’s signed up contractors to help. He’ll know if it’s enough when he sees how bad the mosquitoes are going to be: “There is some indication that it’s going to be a very active year.”
About 140 miles (225 kilometers) away, a special tax supports a district near Fort Myers with a $17 million budget and resources Miami-Dade can only dream of: Huey helicopters, laboratories and specially outfitted trucks. That area has had only five travel-related Zika cases.
The virus is named after the Ugandan forest where it was first isolated more than 70 years ago. The first cases in South America were reported in 2015; it’s now a pandemic there. Although it typically has mild symptoms, it can cause severe birth defects, including unusually small heads that impede brain development.
The U.S. threat isn’t theoretical: On Tuesday, a baby was born with microcephaly at a New Jersey hospital as a result of the Zika virus, according to a statement from Hackensack University Medical Center. The mother, whose name wasn’t disclosed, is visiting the U.S., according to the statement.
As with two other diseases that have traveled to the U.S. from Latin and Central America in recent years, Dengue fever and Chikungunya, there is no vaccine. The best protection is to not get bitten.
Vasquez, an entomologist, is now in his fifth year as head of mosquito control, after beginning as an exterminator 25 years ago. He has a small decal of a mosquito on his truck and the slogan “Bite Me,” and can catch a mosquito with a bare hand — or says he can.
“I always liked bugs,” Vasquez said, as a mosquito slipped from his grasp.
Vasquez’s department managed in 2014, when Dengue and Chikungunya showed up. Now it’s all Zika all the time, with calls spiking every time the Centers for Disease Control or the county mayor holds a press conference.
Leave out the birth defects and Zika is mild compared with Dengue, which can kill, and Chikungunya, which causes victims to hunch over in pain: Vasquez saw the latter rip through his extended family’s Nicaraguan village. A cousin still had pain in his hands six months after getting the disease.
Zika’s danger is its deceptive mildness, he said: Many who get it might not know it.
Vasquez’s office targets about half the 49 mosquito species that live in Miami-Dade. Two spread Dengue, Chikungunya and Zika and one, the Aedis Aegypti, is of particular concern. It loves human habitats and flits from one person to the next, siphoning a little blood from each.
The Aegypti is the mosquito you see in early morning and at dusk, the one that hovers around your ankles and flies away when you reach for it. It lays eggs in containers, in tires, empty flower pots, a bottle cap left in the rain and in the well at the bottom of the leaves of a bromeliad, one of Florida’s favorite decorative yard plants. In Vasquez’s perfect world, he would dig up every one.
Controlling the mosquito is a matter of education — turn over the empty flower pots, throw chemicals on the bromeliad — and manpower. Because the Aegypti stays low and hides, aerial and even truck spraying don’t work well. It takes house-to-house urban combat.
It takes tromping through yards and construction sites, sampling water with dippers and syringes the size of turkey basters, searching massive apartment complexes, avoiding dogs. The inspectors sprinkle larger bodies of stagnant water with crumbled corncobs laced with larvicide, then net fish from one of Miami’s canals and throw them in to devour baby bugs. They empty pots, cats’ water dishes or any small container lousy with larvae.
The inspectors also deal with denial, angry homeowners and, sometimes, local politics, which happened to Vasquez last week.
Responding to a South Miami couple’s call about rainwater sitting in an abandoned swimming pool next door, Vasquez found larvae for the West Nile mosquito, but no Aegypti — until he walked through the complaining residents’ own front yard.
Larvae were growing in a clay pot the size of a Dixie cup and in a planter’s saucer.
Homeowner Eda Harris was having none of it. She told Vasquez he didn’t know what he was talking about, forbade him from spraying in either her yard or in the abandoned property next door and directed him to talk to the city’s mayor, Phil Stoddard, whom she then called. “From what I know, this is not the mosquito that causes Zika,” Harris told Vasquez, who just shook his head.
“I know what I’m talking about,” Vasquez said. “You are breeding mosquitoes.”
Stoddard, a Florida International University biology professor who helped enact a spraying ban in South Miami over concerns that the sprays were killing non-Aedis mosquitoes crucial to the local ecosystem showed up 10 minutes later. He engaged Vasquez in a lengthy conversation in the street, offering to send him academic literature on mosquito control.
Vasquez said a state health emergency declaration supersedes any city ordinance, but that he would be back after checking with the county’s attorney: “This could be a big problem.”
The confrontation took more than 40 minutes. The mosquitoes on Southwest 64th Court buzzed on, unsprayed.