I hope you enjoyed your Summer Vacation! You’ve been back for a week, and you still haven’t funded the Zika response. Maybe you are waiting for “back to Congress” night before getting serious?
Let’s recap how we got here. Though President Obama promptly submitted a Zika response request back in February for a (relatively) modest $1.9 billion to control mosquitos, battle the disease, and accelerate vaccine development, you left town for the summer without passing any of it—not a penny. Instead, you voted on a series of half-baked efforts designed primarily to confuse the question of who was to blame for congressional inaction on Zika. A House bill funded only a fraction of what was needed, and did that by slashing ongoing work to make sure that Ebola is finally extinguished. (Really? Do we really want to risk a resurgence of Ebola? Really?).
This drew a strong rebuke from the President, who remembered when you were busy excoriating him for not taking the Ebola threat seriously enough. The Senate took up a bill that was loaded up with political poison pills (including a provision on Confederate flags on federal land) that was destined for failure. I will give you credit: if the goal was to confuse casual observers about why Congress has not acted on Zika, what I have seen on social media and in blog post comments suggests that you succeeded spectacularly.
But do you know who wasn’t confused by the inaction? The mosquitoes. They just kept working away while you were gone. And by the way, they did not ask anyone’s party affiliation before they bit them. I’ll get back to that in a second.
In the weeks before you left, you were deluged with increasingly dire op-eds, tweets, and statements about the consequences of inaction. I wrote one in May that suggested we would see, in the then-upcoming summer, the first-ever travel warnings by the Centers for Disease Control against travel to parts of the continental United States. We were called “alarmists” and were scolded that Zika wouldn’t be “a disaster.” Certainly no reason to postpone or interrupt a nearly two month Congressional vacation from mid-July to early September.
So can we talk about what happened with Zika while you were away?
First, it exploded in Puerto Rico. The official case count was about 3,000 as you wound things down for vacation in mid-July; last week’s total had the number of cases at over 15,000. Viruses can do that in the time it takes to enjoy two political party conventions and a few weeks at home seeing the voters. And those are just the officially counted cases—there are certainly tens of thousands of more people with Zika on the island who have not yet been tested.
Second, Zika also had a big boom in the continental United States as well. There were about 1,300 cases in the 50 states when you left for break; now the total is 3,000—and again, that’s laboratory confirmed cases, the actual count is several times higher. (Zika symptoms show up only in about 20 percent of people with the virus, and generally, health officials don’t test people who don’t show symptoms.) Not quite as scary as Puerto Rico—but still, more than a doubling in eight weeks.
Third, we had the first transmission of the disease, via mosquitoes, in the United States. Right now, almost 50 Americans have gotten Zika here—not by travelling to some foreign country, but by walking around Florida. And the risk of local Zika transmission seem to be spreading, with cases now popping up outside of Miami-Dade County including one as far away as Tampa.
We also found—for the first time ever—Zika in the mosqutoes flying around Florida, more indication of sexual transmission of the virus, evidence of male-to-male sexual transmission of Zika, and more suggestions that Zika is going to be with us for a while. The FDA announced that all blood donations would now have to be tested for Zika. Drs. Anthony Faucci and Tom Frieden—nonpartisan heroes who have saved untold numbers of lives—have all but held a telethon to try to get the money to fight the growing threat.
And yes, while you were gone, for the first time ever in U.S. history, the CDC was forced to tell pregnant women, women thinking about becoming pregnant, and their partners, not to travel to parts of the continental United States. While you were off vacationing, public health authorities were warning citizens that there are parts of our own country where it is not safe to vacation. (And what about the pregnant women who actually live in these areas—who don’t have a choice about being in these areas?)
So a lot happened with Zika while you were gone. And to put it mildly, all of it was awful.
Also, we had floods in Louisiana while you were gone, and a hurricane hit Florida. We don’t know if local transmission of Zika will get worse because of these events, or how much worse, but, it does provide a reminder that Mother Nature definitely did not take the summer off.
So Congress, you are back. I would like to say that you are back in the nick of time, but, “the nick of time” came and past months ago.
Just fund the Zika response, this coming week, please. Pick something else to score partisan points on, something else to bicker about. Because in a few more weeks, you are going to leave again, for another recess, and the babies born to mothers infected with Zika will start to arrive in larger numbers (beyond the 17 tragic cases we have seen already). And that’s a “while you were away” letter that will be too heart-breaking for me to write.
Sincerely,Ron KlainWhite House Ebola Response Coordinator,Oct 2014-Feb 2015