TAMPA — Florida Gov. Rick Scott and state Surgeon General John Armstrong are scheduled to give an update on preparedness efforts relating to the Zika virus this afternoon at the Hillsborough County Health Department.
On Wednesday, Scott ordered Armstrong to declare a public health emergency in Hillsborough and three other counties with confirmed cases of Zika, thought to cause severe birth defects.
Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Lee and Santa Rosa counties all have confirmed cases of Zika virus — nine in all and all in people who visited areas where the infection is widespread.
State agencies already were on alert with the cruise season under full sail and flights to the Caribbean and South America moving thousands a week to destinations where the Zika virus has been reported.
Hillsborough County mosquito control officials say they are taking every precaution to ensure the virus doesn’t spread here.
Carlos Fernandez, who heads Hillsborough County Mosquito and Aquatic Weed Control, said his office is following standard procedures to knock back any possible domestic outbreak, including spraying, on-foot inspections and trap checking throughout the county.
Both individuals with confirmed cases of Zika in Hillsborough live on the west side of Tampa.
Hillsborough County commissioners on Wednesday instructed their staff to communicate mosquito suppression practices such as ridding yards of standing water and using repellent to avoid getting bitten. The county also will coordinate with the health department in spreading information on the virus via social media to neighborhood associations and the public.
The county has added five mosquito traps to the 65 normally in place, Lyons said. The traps are checked to see what types of mosquitoes are proliferating and what types of diseases they can carry.
More information is available at www.hillsboroughcounty.org/mosquitos.
“Although Florida’s current nine Zika cases were travel-related, we have to ensure Florida is prepared and stays ahead of the spread of the Zika virus in our state,” Scott said. “Our Department of Health will continue to be in constant communication with all county health offices, hospitals and the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We know that we must be prepared for the worst even as we hope for the best.”
The CDC is warning pregnant travelers to change plans if they are headed for areas where an outbreak has been reported.
And so are some travel agents.
With so many cruising and flying to the Caribbean this time of year, a number of government and private agencies are working to spread the word on the risks involved.
On a state level, the Department of Health has posted precautions on its website to help all Floridians guard against the virus, which is thought to be linked to a recent increase of microcephaly in South America. Cases in Brazil have jumped from fewer than 150 in 2014 to just over 4,000 since October.
Newer cases have sprung up across the island nations south of Florida.
Microcephaly is a birth defect that can cause babies to be born with abnormally small heads. These babies often have smaller brains that might not have developed properly and can experience seizures, hearing loss and vision problems, among other effects.
The virus has been detected in 45 nations, including Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and numerous other popular cruise destinations. The CDC has issued an alert for those places, along with the Dominican Republic, Panama, Curacao, Haiti, Honduras and other popular ports of call.
The agency is urging pregnant women planning to go to an infected area to consider postponing travel or changing destinations. Those who must go to areas where Zika has been reported should talk to their doctor and strictly follow steps to prevent mosquito bites during the trip, the CDC suggests.
The CDC, on its website, said the number of Zika cases among travelers visiting or returning to the United States likely will increase.
“We currently have three to four flights per day to San Juan and Panama City on average,” said Tampa International Airport spokeswoman Christine Osborne. “We also have seasonal service to Cancun. This currently represents just over 4,000 passengers per week departing from TPA nonstop to countries under Zika virus warning from the CDC.”
“TPA” is Tampa International’s world airport code.
Thousands more leave each week from Port Tampa Bay on cruise ships bound for the Caribbean, said port spokesman Andy Fobes.
Travel planners are making sure their clients get the right information on Zika.
“What we do is advise what the World Health Organization is advising, and that is that if anybody is pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant that they not go to the areas affected,” said Alexandra Treiber-Kawar, manager of Bowen-Travel World in the West Shore Business District. About half of the company’s business is cruise-related, she said.
Neither Bowen nor Sabine Harris of Cruise Planners in Tampa has had any inquiries about Zika or had clients cancel or postpone cruises as a result of the virus.
Carnival Cruise Lines, with trips to the Caribbean from Tampa throughout the year, has taken a proactive approach by offering information on Zika to all cruise passengers and offering pregnant women alternate itinerary options or a future cruise credit.
Royal Caribbean is considering passenger needs on a case-by-case basis, according to www.cruisecritic.com.
Norwegian Cruise Line, which also sails from Port Tampa Bay, is allowing passengers who have not made a final payment to select an alternate itinerary without penalty. Passengers who have made final payment may choose a future cruise credit.
Copa Airlines, which offers direct flights from Tampa to Panama City, Panama, has issued a travel alert to all of its passengers, warning pregnant women against travel to South America, Mexico, the Caribbean, Puerto Rico and Central America. It is offering flexible schedule changes for any customers who want to change their timing or itinerary.