HHS Regional Director Discusses Zika Preparedness

A potential weapon against the Zika virus. Mutant mosquitoes — millions of them — would be deployed to sterilize and suppress the disease carrying species. The FDA’s approved the trial. The Zika carriers haven’t shown up in New Jersey yet. The 76 cases diagnosed here were all contracted elsewhere, but the Centers for Disease Control has given the state half a million dollars to help it tackle Zika infections in pregnant women should they occur. Joining NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams is Health and Human Services Regional Director Jackie Cornell-Bechelli.

Williams: Should we be concerned that those mosquitoes are going to get here?

Cornell-Bechelli: I think we have a lot of things here in New Jersey protecting us, right. We have a well-established mosquito control program because we’ve been prepared for West Nile. Our state and our counties are sort of at the ready already should those mosquitoes make their way north.

Williams: Will the CDC’s half a million dollars to handle Zika if it gets here be sufficient?

Cornell-Bechelli: I think one of the things that we’ve been challenged with is that babies born with microcephaly we know are living with a lifetime of complicated health care needs. I think one of the struggles has been to see how many families will be impacted and how far we can stretch the funding that’s been allocated long-term and short-term.

Williams: Funding has been cut nationwide for this program, for mosquito control in general. Dr. Stephen Redd of the CDC said the network is in serious disrepair. Is the state able to ramp up efforts despite that?

Cornell-Bechelli: You know, we’ve been talking with the state about what they need to be doing and how they can be prepared. We’ve been working pretty closely to see how we can better supplement and better support them. I think that the state is in a good place so far, as we’ve heard. Again, we’ve been prepared to deal with things like West Nile. A mosquito is a mosquito whether it’s carrying one disease or another. So in some ways the practices that we’ve had in years prior has made us ready in the event that that should happen today, but that’s the not the case. That’s really not what we’re worried about and we’re focused on. It’s really travel transmission that’s the biggest concern right now for New Jerseyans.

Williams: You don’t think right now that there’s any long-term ramifications for Congress’ inability to pass more funding to combat Zika?

Cornell-Bechelli: Well, I think it’s interesting because we’re still in the very beginning stages of knowing how Zika is going to play out — both here, domestically and then across the world — and how that’s going to impact families. It’s a little too soon to say whether or not Congress’ action will have an effect today verses tomorrow.

Williams: What are your best recommendations right now?

Cornell-Bechelli: The best thing that people can do — especially women of childbearing age and women who are pregnant — that’s our primary target, our primary focus, is to just be smart about not being bit by mosquitoes. So it’s wearing long sleeves and long pants when you know you’re going to be outside. It’s using the repellent, the spray, to make sure that you’re not going to get a bite. And it’s also being mindful that Zika is transmitted sexually through sexual activity, so being open and honest with your partner and using protection if you’re looking to get pregnant or already are pregnant.

Williams: You have to travel to Puerto Rico in your job and you’re a woman of childbearing age. Does it concern you?

Cornell-Bechelli: You know, I take the precautions, right? I wear long sleeves. I use the spray daily. I’m also very mindful that I’m not looking to get pregnant at this point in my life, so I’m doing all the things I need to do to not make that happen.