White House: Zika money is half depleted

White House: Zika money is half depleted
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Tuesday doled out $16 million in new grants to help local health officials keep track of birth defects caused by the Zika virus.

The Obama administration has now spent about $201 million out of the $374 million it repurposed in April to fight Zika — leaving about half of its funding still available. The CDC, specifically, has also spent about half of its $222 million in available funding.

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The White House is speeding up the national response to the mosquito-borne virus amid mounting public concerns that Zika is spreading in the U.S., though Republican lawmakers still say the money is being spent too slowly.

The CDC’s latest funding award will help 40 states and territories create a “real-time” tracking system for cases of microcephaly, which causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads, usually because of problems with brain development.

“It is critical to identify infants with birth defects related to Zika virus so we can support them and their families,” CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden wrote in a statement.

The latest funding announcement comes the same week that the CDC deployed an emergency response team to Miami, where more than a dozen people are believed to have acquired Zika directly from mosquitoes.

The 14 cases in Florida mark the first time that Zika has been locally transmitted in the continental U.S., raising new concerns about the lack of government funding available to prevent an outbreak.

President Obama has requested $1.9 billion to fight the virus in the U.S. and abroad, though his budget team has found about $400 million in unused funds to repurpose for Zika.

Republican leaders, who want to reuse leftover ObamaCare and Ebola virus dollars for Zika, have repeatedly blasted the Obama administration for sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars.

Congress can’t approve any new funding until it returns from its seven-week recess in September, and the chances are slim even then.  

The billion-dollar funding package was repeatedly shot down because of partisan strife over how to pay for it and questions over whether any of the funding should be allowed to go to Planned Parenthood.

CDC officials like Frieden have repeatedly warned of the lack of medical understanding about Zika, stressing the need for strong monitoring systems.

The funding announced Tuesday will help state health officials and researchers better monitor microcephaly and any other birth defects possibly caused by the virus. The same public health teams will also be able to look at the long-term effects of babies born to mothers with Zika.

The grants will help states and territories where mosquitoes are currently spreading the virus like Puerto Rico, American Samoa and Florida. Northern states like New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont — which have seen travel-related cases — will also receive some financial help from the government.