While funding to combat the spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus stalls on Capitol Hill, agencies across the federal government are working at home and abroad to mitigate the threat, including by deploying workers to impacted areas.
The Health and Human Services Department has sent more than 100 employees to affected regions, both within the United States as well as outside the country. The State Department is assisting in those deployment efforts, while the Defense Department has deployed personnel stationed in areas with high concentrations of Zika infections to assist in prevention and treatment efforts.
The federal response has not yet risen to the level of effort directed against the Ebola virus, which involved thousands of employees across nine countries and several states. Agencies received more than $5 billion in emergency appropriations from Congress for that effort; lawmakers have yet to approve any such spending surge to fight Zika, aside from reprograming funds for HHS and other agencies. The Obama administration has requested $1.9 billion in emergency funds for its Zika campaign, leading the Senate to approve a compromise $1.1 billion measure. A House proposal for the same amount, however, was derailed after Republicans included controversial riders on issues related to Planned Parenthood, the Confederate flag and the Affordable Care Act.
While the White House and Congress bicker over those issues and whether the administration should further reallocate funding originally set aside for Ebola response, agencies have already moved forward with the resources currently made available. While agencies have begun sending employees abroad, those personnel -- in a decision that again differs from the Ebola response -- are not receiving additional pay for working in potentially dangerous posts.
Federal employees sent to West Africa to combat the spread of Ebola received an extra 30 percent to 35 percent of their salaries while stationed abroad. An official at the State Department, which sets the policy for foreign hazard pay, said no such increases have been issued related to Zika.
HHS’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have deployed 105 employees: 65 to Puerto Rico, 13 to the U.S. Virgin Islands, seven to American Samoa, one to the Marshall Islands and one to Colombia. Additionally, CDC has sent employees to El Paso, Houston, Honolulu, San Diego, Miami and Tallahassee, Fla.
The employees are mostly epidemiologists, according to Benjamin Haynes, a CDC spokesman, primarily investigating the outbreak in the regions where they are working. They are serving in support of the state, territory or country where they are stationed, Haynes said. CDC has issued contracts to support mosquito control in U.S. territories and is establishing new contracts to be used if necessary for similar efforts within the continental United States.
A Defense spokesman said the department is collaborating with interagency efforts to mitigate the spread of Zika.
"DOD has deployed multiple subject matter [experts] to known areas where the Zika virus is present to support the development of integrated vector control plans," the spokesman said. He added Defense is also actively testing mosquitos for Zika and other diseases.
The U.S. Agency for International Development has sent an employee to Central America to “manage regional Zika programming,” according to the State official. It is currently in the process of “hiring several other staff dedicated to Zika response who will be stationed throughout the Latin America and Caribbean region.” USAID is also working with partners in the region that have staff on the ground implementing Zika response efforts.
State itself, which has helped manage CDC’s deployment, has yet to send any of its own employees to coordinate Zika efforts. To date, the official said, the department has relied on staff already stationed in regions impacted by the virus to address the outbreak.
In addition to CDC’s efforts, HHS has worked with State to issue travel advisories for people traveling to places where Zika is spreading and is reaching out to pregnant women, women of child-bearing age and their partners who live in impacted territories.
The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, also an HHS component, recently issued a $5 million contract to a Seattle-based company to develop a blood test that can diagnose Zika within hours. The process currently takes two to three days. ASPR has so far spent more than $37 million of funds originally obligated for Ebola research to develop Zika vaccines, diagnostics and other tests and technologies. The Food and Drug Administration is currently fast-tracking those efforts, while the National Institutes of Health is hoping to begin Phase I testing of a Zika vaccine as soon as September.
An HHS spokesman emphasized that without additional funds from Congress, NIH may not be able to move that research into its second phase. The Obama administration has rebuffed efforts to further raid Ebola funds to fight Zika, and has included in its $1.9 billion Zika funding request an effort to refill the Ebola coffers to support agencies’ ongoing efforts related to that outbreak. Obama himself warned last week that Zika money is “rapidly running out.”
“The situation is getting critical,” he said.