Florida health officials determined Friday that four cases of Zika were likely transmitted by mosquitoes in the state, marking the first instances of mosquito-borne transmission within the continental United States.
The development prompted the state’s Republican Sen. Marco Rubio to lash out at Congress and the Obama administration for failing to fully confront the virus. Democrats, in turn, scolded Republican leaders in Congress for leaving Washington for a seven-week summer recess without taking action to fund a Zika response.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, announced Friday that three men and one woman with Zika in Miami-Dade and Broward counties in South Florida were likely infected by local mosquitoes carrying the virus.
“The news is disturbing, but no one should be surprised,” Rubio said in a statement. “I’ve been warning Congress for months that we would eventually have locally transmitted cases of Zika virus in the United States, and sadly that has now become a reality. We need to prepare ourselves for more locally transmitted cases to emerge in the weeks ahead.”
Rubio has blasted his colleagues in Congress for their inability to pass a $1.1 billion funding package (HR 2577) to combat the virus, and he criticized the Obama administration on Thursday for not quickly disbursing a modest batch of funding immediately for health and foreign aid agencies.
An aide for the Office of Management and Budget told Roll Call that as of July 25, roughly $204 million had been obligated out of $589 million in initial Zika funding that was cobbled together from other spending accounts in April.
Rubio repeated his frustration with both sides Friday.
“I urge the Obama administration to use all the tools at its disposal to reprogram existing public health emergency funding in the short term to deal with Zika,” he said. “As I have said time and time again, both parties in Congress need to get it together and approve funding to combat the Zika virus.”
Democratic appropriations leaders ripped into Republicans for their lack of action on Zika before adjourning for recess.
"This news makes clear how reckless it was for the Republican majority to adjourn for seven weeks without having enacted emergency Zika funding," said Rep. Nita M. Lowey of New York, the House Appropriations Committee’s top Democrat, in a statement to Roll Call.
"I hope today's announcement is a wake-up call to Republicans, because it is now clearer than ever that families are at risk as a result of this frightening virus,” Sen. Patty Murray of Washington said in a statement.
But House Majority Whip Steve Scalise blasted Democrats for what both parties acknowledged in their statements was a serious threat.
"It is shameful that Senate Democrats are playing politics with a disease that threatens millions of Americans, particularly expecting mothers and their children, by blocking a vote on this important legislation,” the Louisiana Republican said in a statement emailed to Roll Call.
Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida said the administration is moving too slowly. “Instead of waiting idly for the right political opportunity, [Obama] must continue using the $590 million that is available, only a fraction of which has been spent. We must fund and spend every penny needed to prevent, combat, and treat this disease, and I will work with my colleagues to ensure this happens,” Diaz-Balart said in a statement
A White House aide sidestepped a question Friday about why administration officials have not been doling out the remaining $385 million in reprogrammed funds faster.
“We did what we could earlier this year to reprogram funds, take them away from projects like Ebola, which still pose a threat to public health,” Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz said. “There’s only a finite spreadsheet available of funds that allow us to do so.”
As the White House has for months, Schultz continued to press lawmakers to act.
“The keys here are sitting with Congress, and they have to turn them to unleash more federal funding,” he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also warned Friday of a rapid increase in Zika infections in Puerto Rico. In a weekly report, CDC found 5,582 people in Puerto Rico, including 672 pregnant women, had been diagnosed with Zika as of July 7.
The virus, which can spread sexually and via mosquitoes, is known to cause the birth defect microcephaly.
“Puerto Rico is in the midst of a Zika epidemic. The virus is silently and rapidly spreading in Puerto Rico,” said Lyle R. Petersen, the incident manager for CDC’s Zika response. “This could lead to hundreds of infants being born with microcephaly or other birth defects in the coming year.”
Petersen and CDC Director Thomas Frieden also commented on the cases in Florida.
“All the evidence we have seen indicates that this is mosquito-borne transmission that occurred several weeks ago in several blocks in Miami,” Frieden said in a statement.
Petersen said, “We have been working with state and local governments to prepare for the likelihood of local mosquito-borne Zika virus transmission in the continental United States and Hawaii. We anticipate that there may be additional cases of ‘homegrown’ Zika in the coming weeks. Our top priority is to protect pregnant women from the potentially devastating harm caused by Zika.”
On a news conference call later Friday, Frieden said the lack of additional funding was hampering CDC efforts to confront Zika, but he didn’t specify how much money the agency has spent already or still has available.
“We are doing the best we can with the resources we have available to us and the authority that we have available to us,” Frieden told reporters. “If we had more resources, we’d be able to mount a more robust response. This is certainly an example why it’s so important that, as proposed by both houses of Congress, both parties, there be an infectious disease rapid response fund that has the resources and authorities for rapid action.”
At a separate event Friday at the Bipartisan Policy Center, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said it remains necessary for Congress to pass additional funding for agencies to combat Zika.
“We really do need the money,” Fauci said. “We are getting to that point very, very soon that we’re going to run out of the money that we’ve borrowed from ourselves.” Fauci later clarified that his comments applied only to the National Institutes of Health, not other agencies in the Department of Health and Human Services.
Fauci expressed frustration with politically divisive provisions added to the Zika spending package that ultimately led Democrats to oppose it.
Fauci said that the administration's Zika response had not yet been hindered by congressional inaction but that without more money soon, it would be difficult to prepare for the second phase of vaccine testing that is scheduled to begin early next year in areas with active transmission.
"I am preciously close to the point where I don’t have any money and things are going to start slowing," he said.
Lawmakers are currently out of town until Sept. 6.
Andrew Siddons, John T. Bennett and Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this story.