Top health officials warned Wednesday that the Zika virus threatens much of the Western Hemisphere, with Florida, Puerto Rico and Brazil in the crosshairs.
At a Senate hearing convened by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, three senior U.S. government experts urged Congress to pass a $1.1 billion Zika-prevention bill that has been stalled by partisan politics.
“We have made difficult decisions and redirected resources from other important public health activities to support our most critical needs,” Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told senators on a Senate Foreign Affairs subcommittee focused on the Western Hemisphere.
“These redirected funds, however, are not enough to support a comprehensive Zika response, and they divert funding from other critically important public health activities,” Frieden said.
The CDC chief criticized partisan congressional squabbling that has held up the emergency Zika funds.
“This is no way to fight epidemics,” he said.
Rubio, a Miami Republican, described the harm already wrought by Zika in his state and in Puerto Rico.
Florida, he said, reported 13 new infections Monday. With those, the state had a total 282 known cases – 129 of them in South Florida – more than any other state except New York.
Both states have about 1 million Puerto Rican residents, many of whom travel frequently to the commonwealth or host visitors from there.
Zika, carried mainly by the Aedes mosquito species but also transmitted sexually among humans, has ravaged Puerto Rico, where almost 2,500 people have been infected.
“The growing threat of the Zika virus as a full-blown public health crisis in the United States is a clear call to action,” Rubio said.
Republicans, who hold majorities in both the House and Senate, have blocked a $1.9 billion emergency Zika-prevention package President Barack Obama sent to Congress in February.
The Senate overwhelmingly approved a compromise $1.1 billion bill in May, but when it was returned to the chamber last month, House Republicans in a conference committee had inserted provisions unrelated to Zika that Democrats have long opposed.
Among the provisions are limits on Obamacare, restrictions on abortions, funding cuts for birth control and the lifting of key environmental controls.
Branding those provisions “poisons pills,” Senate Democrats last month voted down the altered Zika measure, leaving it at an impasse. Rubio and Sen. Bill Nelson, an Orlando Democrat, want a new vote on a clean bill limited to the Zika response.
At the hearing Wednesday, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, the senior Democrat on the subcommittee, criticized another clause that would override a law that bans displaying the Confederate flag at cemeteries for veterans.
“Few issues pose as immediate threat to the health of Americans as the Zika virus,” Boxer said. “There’s no room for politics in this.”
Pregnant women are most at risk because Zika can cause birth defects such as microcephaly, a congenital condition marked by abnormally small heads and stunted brain development in infants.
There have been 599 cases of Zika among pregnant women in the United States and its territories, Frieden said Wednesday. Seven infants have been born with Zika-related birth defects, he said.
“We are hopeful that Congress will work quickly to fund critical-response efforts to protect pregnant women against Zika,” Frieden said.
In response to a question from Rubio, Frieden said the CDC is recommending that pregnant women not travel to Brazil for the 2016 Summer Olympics next month.
Brazil has registered more than 100,000 cases of Zika, with at least 5,000 newborns afflicted with microcephaly.
American athletes and spectators can go to Brazil for the Olympics if they observe safeguards, Frieden said.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, praised efforts to combat Zika by the CDC, which is based in Atlanta.
“This is a crisis of major proportions, and time is of the essence,” he said.
Judith Garber, acting assistant secretary of state for scientific affairs, told the Senate panel that 40 countries and territories in the Western Hemisphere “are currently experiencing active, mosquito-born transmission of the Zika virus.”
Garber added: “It is only a matter of time before we experience local transmission in the continental United States and Hawaii as well.”
The vast majority of the almost 1,200 Zika cases in the continental United States and Hawaii have come through contact among people who have traveled in Puerto Rico, Brazil or other heavily infected places.
With Brazil, Colombia and Haiti already reporting thousands of cases of Zika, Rubio said all of the United States, Canada, Mexico, the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean face a potential epidemic.
“It’s only growing by the day,” Rubio said. “And the links between our nations make this a hemispheric public health crisis.”
Without mentioning his party, Rubio criticized the Republicans who’ve blocked funding for Zika research, vaccine development and other forms of prevention.
“The problem is only going to accelerate,” he said.
In a tense exchange Tuesday on the Senate floor, Nelson upbraided Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, for failing to bring to a vote a clean Zika funding bill without the extraneous provisions that Democrats oppose.
“This is an emergency (of the sort) that is always dealt with in the history of this Senate as a bipartisan response to meet the situation of the emergency,” Nelson said. “And now this has been used ideologically as a political message in a partisan-driven bill.”
James Rosen: 202-383-0014; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose