With public money short, private sector steps into Zika fight

MIAMI — As South Florida communities dealing with the Zika virus continue to wait for government dollars to trickle down from Washington and Tallahassee, a pharmaceutical giant and charities have stepped in to plug some of the gaps.

Pfizer, the New York-based pharmaceutical company famous for Viagra, said Monday it will contribute $4.1 million to help local communities test pregnant women and provide contraceptives to women who fear of getting pregnant.

A group of philanthropic organizations led by Community Health Charities and theMarch of Dimes will also launch a national fund-raising drive this week to help purchase medical equipment to diagnose and treat people infected by the virus and conduct educational campaigns.

Even TV's "Dr. Gadget" has gotten involved, working with Milwaukee-based DynaTrap to distribute $20,000 worth of mosquito traps in Miami last week.

"The world has been watching a global and evolving health emergency," said Shreya Jani, a public health specialist at Pfizer. "We believe the public and private sectors should work together to collaborate in these situations. Everybody needs to step forward. Our hope is that by making this announcement, others will join us."

Local, state and federal agencies have been racing to control Zika, the mosquito-born virus that causes fevers in adults and microcephaly in newborns, ever since it began spreading locally in Miami in July. All three levels of government have used emergency funding for mosquito spraying, testing in pregnant women and public education campaigns.

But most of the funds dedicated to combating the virus, which is expected to continue spreading around the continental U.S. in the coming years, are still far from reaching the people who need it most. David Hedge, a political science professor at theUniversity of Florida, said government agencies can respond quickly respond to natural disasters, but don't respond as well to public health emergencies like Zika.

"What you see is a mixture of politics and bureaucracy," Hedge said. "A lot of what slows you down is partisan bickering over issues."

Such political fights were common throughout the summer, as Zika spread in three Miami neighborhoods and threatened to push father north. It took Congress several months to pass a $1.1 billion funding Zika response and research programs because the bill became a vehicle for other squabbles, including an argument over whetherPlanned Parenthood should receive some of that funding.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, repeatedly called out the Democratic administration of President Obama for not sending enough federal funds to help in the Zika fight. Scott sent a series of public requests to the administration, arguing that the state had not received enough Zika testing kits from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, additional funding to help develop a vaccine or guidance on how to better control mosquitoes.

"The federal government is not being a good partner," Scott said during a press conference in Miami last month.

The Department of Health and Human Services counters that Florida has not used all of the federal money available to it. According to the department, the state has used just $3.4 million of the $38 million it has on hand for Zika response. HHS Assistant Secretary Kevin Griffis rejected the idea that the administration has left Florida hanging.

"That's not what the record shows," Griffis said Monday. "The record shows that this administration has worked tirelessly to meet the needs that Florida has outlined."

The White House has identified $600 million it could use for emergency Zika funding nationwide. And Griffis said the department has sped up the process to award grants and contracts that will be funded by Congress' bill. He said the first awards could go out as early as December.

That could be a difficult wait for local governments like Miami-Dade County, which estimates it could spend up to $12 million in mosquito control efforts by the time mosquito season ends on Nov. 30. So far, the county says it has received $4.1 million from the state and nothing from the federal government.

"Reimbursement can always be done faster," Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said.

Those delays, however aggravating to local officials, come as little surprise to the private entities jumping into the fray.

"It's government - it takes time," said Thomas Bognanno, president of Community Health Charities. "If money was allocated today, it wouldn't be there tomorrow."

That's why Bognanno's organization is leading a nationwide fund-raising drive to help fill in the gaps.

Community Health Charities specializes in raising money from employees at major companies. They will work with the March of Dimes and the CDC Foundation, a non-profit branch of the federal agency that works on public-private partnerships to address public health issues.

Bognanno said there's always a limit to what the government can do to in these situations. But he said the willingness of private companies and citizens to help is a now centuries-old American tradition that will never disappear.

"Government has a role, and they will always have a role," he said. "But there are going to be gaps, there are going to be things that the government can't do on a family by family basis. We can take that."


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