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Questions Remain As To How, When Federal Zika Funds Will Be Distributed To Florida

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A measure signed into law by President Obama includes money to help combat the Zika virus. Florida is expected to be one of the areas to get a large amount of the funds. That’s in addition to the millions of dollars in state money Governor Rick Scott has already set aside in the Zika fight. But, questions now remain about when and how the funds will be distributed to help affected Floridians.

It was back in February, when President Obama requested $1.9 billion to fight the Zika virus. Despite Republicans and Democrats calling it a non-partisan issue, Congress could not come together to pass a bill.

“In South Florida, we’ve waited more than seven months for Congressional Republicans to drop their political games and approve funding to stop the spread of the Zika virus,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. “South Florida, as many know by now, is the epicenter for this virus. And, the Florida Department of Health has confirmed its 900th case.”

The state’s mounting Zika cases united members of Florida’s Congressional Delegation, like South Florida Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz, who were frustrated by Congress’ lack of action.

That changed Wednesday, when boththe U.S. Senate and House passed a temporary spending bill to avoid a government shutdown that included $1.1 billion for anti-Zika efforts.

And, while it’s not totally what he’d asked for, the President signed it into law Thursday.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who voted for the bill, says he’s grateful the funds are available for affected areas, including Florida—which has more than 90 pregnant women with Zika.

“This has gotten to the level of being quite uncomfortable,” said Nelson. “Over 2,000 pregnant women in the continental U.S. and our territories that have the Zika virus and we know from the CDC that up to 12, it's likely that there will be a birth defect.  So I want the Senate to know how much I appreciate this. In my own state of Florida, we have been so severely hit. But now at least the cavalry has arrived.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) also praised the funds now available to help fight the mosquito-borne disease.

“Included in the law is $15 million that's specifically targeted for states with local transmissions, and the only state so far that's had local transmissions is my home state of Florida,” said Rubio. “It also includes $60 million specifically for territories like Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has the highest number of infected American citizens with Zika. So today is good news for Puerto Rico. This took far too long, but I'm glad we're finally here.”

About $400 million will go toward mosquito-control and a similar amount will be for Zika vaccine and better testing research.

That may also include reimbursing the $61.2 million Governor Rick Scott has allocated so far in state funds—most recently setting aside $25 millionfor expediting the development of a Zika vaccine and new testing methods.

The agency in charge of distributing that money through a research grant is the Florida Department of Health’s Biomedical Research Advisory Council, or BRAC.

BRAC Chair Daniel Armstrong says his council has added another area to look into: the long-term effects on kids and adults. That includes cognitive impairment in adults to the more common Zika birth defect known as microcephaly.

“That came from the recognition that as the effect of the virus has been looked at in Brazil and other places of the potential for hearing, vision, neurodevelopmental issues in children who are infected,” said Armstrong.

And, Armstrong says it could be early next year until everything is complete, which includes grant applications.

“We do know that the funding period for this grant mechanism is going to be three years,” he added. “There is an emphasis on soliciting the best science proposals that can also move most quickly to helping us to identify the vaccines, the testing methods, and the associated impacts of this disease.”

Meanwhile, Governor Scott—who has been frustrated by the process—is hoping the federal government will “work quickly to provide necessary funding to Florida.”

“We allocated $25 million for Zika research to develop a vaccine and I hope the CDC [Center for Disease Control] will match that,” said Scott. “We’ve asked them for immediate action to accelerate their testing process. Pregnant women are unsafe because the CDC are waiting too long to get the results. And, I’ve asked the CDC to give Miami Dade and the city of Miami Beach—where we have a 4.5 square mile area impacted—better guidance on how to control mosquitoes that carry Zika.”

So far, Miami Beach is the only area that still has a travel-advisory in place with continued in-state Zika cases. The Miami-neighborhood of Wynwood recently got its travel ban removed by the CDC. And, Scott even hosted a “Dine Out Wynwood” event Friday to encourage people to go to businesses affected by the Zika travel ban.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.