Mayor Sylvester Turner sure must have some pull in Washington. Mere minutes after Turner released a statement Monday afternoon requesting additional funds to combat Zika, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention obliged — pledging to give Texas $720,000 to fight the mosquito-borne virus.
Darian Ward, the mayor's spokeswoman, said the timing of the announcements was coincidental. But the money — along with $1.5 million in funds the CDC pledged Houston last week — will help Texas "establish, enhance, and maintain information-gathering systems to rapidly detect microcephaly," the head-shrinking birth defect Zika can cause in infants, the CDC said.
After researchers discovered an outbreak of mosquito-borne Zika in south Florida last week — the first in the United States — doctors in Houston declared an outbreak was imminent in Harris County. They said urban areas along the humid Texas Gulf Coast are particularly vulnerable because they provide ample human hosts and breeding grounds.
Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health, told the Houston Press he has so far been able to pull money from other programs to expand Zika outreach and preparation. But he warned a Zika outbreak would be difficult to combat without additional resources.
Mayor Turner has for months chided Austin and the federal government for failing to provide more Zika aid. Turner has also called on Governor Greg Abbott to declare Zika a public health emergency, an action the governor has yet to take. On Monday, Turner noted 14 cases of Zika have been detected in Houston, part of 80 statewide. Turner has ordered neighborhood trash sweeps to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds, but said the city would be well served with more money before a Zika outbreak strikes.
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"Cities are front line of defense in the battle, and we could use some financial assistance from the state and federal governments," Turner said in a statement. "It makes no sense to wait until there is an outbreak here."
Representative Carol Alvarado, whose district covers southwest Houston, agreed and echoed Turner's call for more state aid for Zika. The House Democrat said she is unsure how much money will ultimately be needed, but suggested lawmakers could find money in the Solid Waste Disposal Act, which collects fees from trash haulers.
"We've got a nice chunk of money sitting there, and I'm not sure what that money has been used for in the past," Alvarado said. "I think a good use would be the prevention of Zika."
Alvarado said she is eager to expand awareness of Zika among her constituents. She's holding a town hall meeting Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m. at the E.B. Cape Center Auditorium on Leeland Street. City officials and researchers will be on hand to discuss Zika and what residents can do to lessen their risk of infection.