When I landed in Miami on June 5, it was hot, wet and buggy. I felt like I was stepping into a spa set up for mosquitoes – they love this kind of weather. But at that time, the local bugs weren’t spreading the Zika virus. In fact, the only official cases were from people who had traveled to Zika-infested areas or who had sex with such a traveler.
But I wasn’t taking any chances. I’m pretty susceptible to mosquito bites. So I stocked up: I bought one can of Off and about six of those brightly colored mosquito repellent wristbands. It turns out that even with my mini-arsenal of bug-repelling products, I wouldn’t stand a chance.
I joined Chalmers Vasquez, Miami-Dade County’s mosquito control manager, as he headed out to hunt for Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the species that carries Zika. The bugs seemed to like him more than they like me. At one point, there were eight mosquitoes landing on him. They rose up out of a small pool of water at the bottom of a toy wheelbarrow, and they were hungry. I was so busy paying attention to Chalmers and the mosquitoes sucking his blood that I didn’t realize they were feasting on me, too. Within minutes, I had two big welts on the back of my left forearm, just inches from my wrist: Aedes aegypti 2, Amy Walters 0.
A couple of days later, I interviewed two virologists, Sharon Isern and Scott Michael, a husband-wife research team. They commented on the bites and how big they were. They weren’t going away. It was kind of embarrassing. I was here to report on Zika, but now it felt like I was getting up close and personal with the disease. I wasn’t pregnant, so that wasn’t a concern. But what if I carried Zika, then some mosquito bit me and passed it on to someone else? I didn’t want to be part of the problem.
I decided to call Miami’s Zika hotline. A guy named Stan took my call. He told me there was no way I could get Zika, so they wouldn’t test me. It was June 8, and at that time, there were no known Zika-carrying mosquitoes in the continental U.S. I told him, if they didn’t test people like me, how would they ever find out if Zika-carrying bugs were buzzing around? He wasn’t swayed, and eventually I just hung up.
On June 14, I was back in California. After I was home for a few days, I started feeling sick. I had a cough, was congested and felt feverish. Catching Zika seemed like a long shot. Less than 20 percent of people who get infected show any symptoms … but maybe I did have Zika. Shouldn’t I know?
This time, I called up my own health care provider.
“So I was traveling in Miami reporting a story on Zika,” I said, “and I got some mosquito bites.” I spoke to a nurse and asked if they would test me. Again, unless I’d been out of the continental U.S., the answer was no.
It felt like I was going around in circles. If the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wasn’t testing for local cases of Zika, how could it find them? I was starting to think “local cases” might include me.
I still had a story to report. In early July, I called Tom Skinner with the CDC. Why weren’t they testing me for Zika?
“Our guidelines right now are focusing on individuals who have traveled to areas where Zika virus is circulating, who are presenting with symptoms,” he said, “because right now, that’s what the epidemiology of this disease indicates. We’re not seeing any local transmission.”
But by the end of July, everything had changed. The first locally acquired case of Zika was identified in Miami. According to officials, the spread may have started as far back as June 15 – one week after I left.
The CDC soon uncovered more than a dozen cases of locally acquired Zika in one neighborhood of Miami. More are popping up almost every day. Florida Gov. Rick Scott now has called for free Zika tests for pregnant women throughout the state. If an expectant mom has Zika, her baby could have severe birth defects. But what about for people like me, who aren’t pregnant and just want to know if we are carrying this virus?
We may never know.
Amy Walters can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @AmyWalters_.