Florida’s first cases of locally contracted Zika virus draw focus of state officials

The aedes aegypti mosquito, common in Florida, carries the Zika virus
The aedes aegypti mosquito, common in Florida, carries the Zika virus

The first four cases of mosquito-borne Zika virus in the continental U.S. being found in Miami-Dade and Broward counties drew the focus Friday of state leaders.

Gov. Rick Scott, who earlier steered $26.2 million in state funds to help counties both fight and prepare for a widening Zika outbreak, was among the first to weigh in.

“Following today’s news, I directed the Department of Health to immediately begin contracting with commercial pest control companies to increase spraying and mosquito abatement efforts in the impacted area,” Scott said.

“We know from our experience with successfully dealing with other mosquito-borne viruses in our state that through constant surveillance and immediate action that we will protect our families and visitors.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam also issued issued a statewide mosquito declaration, allowing aggressive mosquito control efforts within a 200-yard radius around the homes of the four patients.

“Floridians can do their part by draining standing water surrounding their homes, as it can serve as breeding grounds for the mosquitoes that are capable of transmitting the virus,” Putnam added.

Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, running for re-election, called on the Obama administration to take swift action.

“We are entering a critical phase of this crisis,” Rubio said.

“Local mosquito transmissions and increased travel to the U.S. from Zika-affected regions are a dangerous combination that could lead to an explosive increase in infections. We must act quickly to prevent the problem from reaching a tipping point in the mainland U.S. as it already has in Puerto Rico.

He added, “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. 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.”


Planned Parenthood sues Scott administration over funding ban

New state law erases funding at Planned Parenthood clinics
New state law erases funding at Planned Parenthood clinics

Florida Planned Parenthood sued Gov. Rick Scott’s administration Thursday over a new state law that bars organizations which perform abortions from drawing state or local taxpayer dollars.

The law, set to take effect July 1, threatens access to birth control, breast and cervical cancer screenings and other care for many low-income women, according to the lawsuit filed in federal court in Tallahassee.

Florida lawmakers approved the measure (HB 1411), which also toughens regulations on abortion clinics across the state. Opponents said Florida is among 24 states that have taken action to “defund” Planned Parenthood and limit access to care at its facilities.

“For our patients, it’s not about politics, it’s about their health and their lives,” said Lillian Tamayo, CEO, Planned Parenthood of South, East and North Florida.

“If you need a cervical cancer screening, lawmakers should be making it easier, not harder, to get the care you need. Florida politicians will stop at nothing to ban abortion, and they’re willing to decimate access to preventive care in the process,” she added.

The Florida Health Department, which is named in the lawsuit, did not immediately respond.

Supporters of the legislation, however, have said it’s important that public dollars not go to organizations that perform abortions – even if that service is only part of their overall mission.

Fight over hospital surgery rule heads to hearing officer

Attention is drawn to Health Department rule change after St. Mary's closed its pediatric cardiac surgery unit
Attention is drawn to Health Department rule change after St. Mary’s closed its pediatric cardiac surgery unit

Florida Health Department officials urged a hearing officer Friday to dismiss an effort aimed at stopping the agency from abandoning a key part of its oversight of cardiac surgery on children.

Attorneys representing four youngsters with heart ailments, identified only by their initials, are backed by several pediatric cardiologists in the bid to halt the Health Department action.

Health officials say the move is prompted by the agency recently concluding that it no longer has the legal authority to carry out such  oversight.

The largely procedural fight is drawing heightened attention in the wake of CNN reporting this summer that nine infants with congenital heart defects died since 2011 at the now-closed St. Mary’s Medical Center pediatric heart surgery unit in West Palm Beach.

Some doctors warn the state’s plan will effectively erase any requirements for care.

Recommendations on how to decide the case were submitted to a state hearing officer Friday by attorneys for the children and the state. The officer is expected to rule later this month.

The agency is seeking to repeal a more than 30-year-old rule that supports quality standards and allows doctor-led inspections at Florida hospitals performing heart surgery on the state’s tiniest patients.

Health officials conclude that the department has no authority under state law to regulate pediatric cardiac facilities and that the current system for quality standards is misleading to the public and could be challenged legally.

The future of a doctor-led oversight team, the Cardiac Technical Advisory Panel, which played a role in the closure of the pediatric heart surgery unit at St. Mary’s, also would be clouded if the rule is erased, opponents have said.

In its recommended order, Health Department attorneys argued that the children challenging did not have legal “standing.” The agency also said they and the doctors backing them presented no clear evidence that the quality of health care would be affected by the change.

The department concluded, “the argument on the immediacy of any injury in fact rests on the assumption that hospitals and health care providers will allow the quality of cardiac care to deteriorate in the absence of the standards.”

Attorneys for the children, however, argued that the state is abandoning its regulatory responsibility and opening the door to more surgery centers where more Florida children could be harmed.

They wrote that there is “no evidence…that (DOH) either intends, or is able, to satisfy its duty of ensuring quality of care for pediatric cardiac services following repeal of the quality assurance process set forth in the existing rule.”

Pedatric heart surgeries have been performed for years at eight hospitals that accept Children’s Medical Services patients and those with private insurance. CMS is the state program for lower income children with special needs.

But in recent years, more hospitals are looking to perform the delicate surgeries. While St. Mary’s was the first to try, beginning in 2011, since then two hospitals in the Orlando area have begun programs, with more potentially on the horizon.

The department is an agency under Gov. Rick Scott, who made much of his personal wealth as a hospital executive. As governor, he has touted the hundreds of agency rules and regulations that have been stripped from the books since he took office in 2011.