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HHS Secretary Links Zika Emergency to Puerto Rico's Debt Crisis

Workers from the Puerto Rico Health Department and CDC review Zika-related data.

Workers from the Puerto Rico Health Department and CDC review Zika-related data. Danica Coto / AP

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Burwell's trip to San Juan highlights economic challenges of mosquito control.

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell on Thursday added new urgency to the Obama administration’s calls for Congress to appropriate emergency funding to combat the Zika virus, linking Puerto Rico’s health struggles to the larger issue of its ongoing debt crisis.

“We’re obviously very concerned about the economy in Puerto Rico,” Burwell told reporters in a conference call to summarize her recent two-day trip to the island to tour a clinic. Because the virus can be spread by mosquitos, the issue of standing water in piles of old tires is “acute,” she said, and “because of the difficult economic situation, many of the tires people use are re-treads, so there are a lot lying around.”

The “time sensitivity” of the Zika outbreak, which has affected 475 Puerto Ricans, is all the more reason, she said, for Congress to move on the administration’s $1.9 billion request for emergency funding.

Burwell announced that HHS had awarded $5 million to 20 health centers in Puerto Rico to expand their hours to improve family planning services, outreach and education. “This problem demands our attention and continued action—the need is now,” she said. Having moved money being used to fight Ebola is only a temporary fix, she said, noting 12 new Ebola cases in West Africa. “We need to add funds for vaccine research and diagnostics, which is research on testing,” she said. “We need to expand capacity to get people tested and get the results.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was on the call as well. He said his team is planning a vaccine phase 1 trial in September, followed by a phase 2 effort in the new year. Burwell and Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stressed that the threat from Zika primarily affects pregnant women, and that tourist travel to Puerto Rico is safe.

Congress so far has not been willing to appropriate new Zika money, nor has it agreed on a solution for the Puerto Rican debt crisis, which threatens the island with default on its $72 billion debt. Burwell mentioned the administration’s package released last October that would include restructuring debt, increasing Medicaid payments, and offering tax credits to promote work and economic development.

On Wednesday, HHS also announced that the department’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response will support the collection of blood samples from people in the continental United States and Puerto Rico who have been infected with Zika virus.