CDC director on Zika: ‘Basically, we’re out of money’

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The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Tuesday made his strongest case yet for Congress to include funding to combat the Zika virus in its stopgap spending bill next month.

“Basically, we’re out of money,” Dr. Tom Frieden told reporters at a briefing in downtown Washington. “Congress needs to do something.”

Frieden is delivering his most urgent appeal since February for lawmakers to approve some or all of the Obama administration’s $1.9 billion request, about a week before the end of Congress’s summer recess.

The agency, which leads the nation’s public health response to Zika, has spent or budgeted almost all of the $222 million it borrowed from across the federal health department.   

About half went to state and local health agencies. The rest went to develop new diagnostic tests, bolster public outreach and bulk up staffing to deal with the outbreaks in Puerto Rico and southern Florida.

The CDC has spent a total of $193.7 million as of Friday, though Frieden said the rest of the money is “all spoken for,” save for a few million dollars needed to pay workers in the next few weeks.

The virus, which causes severe birth defects, has hit tropical U.S. territories hard and begun spreading in Florida. It can be transmitted by mosquitoes and through sexual contact.

Lawmakers will return to Washington with about three weeks to approve a spending bill and avert a government shutdown. If that bill does not include Zika funding, Frieden said, the CDC will not be able to continue with its Zika prevention, diagnosis and medical research efforts.

The agency has already had to take money from programs devoted to immunization, HIV prevention and disease tracking. Even with those extra dollars, Frieden said, the CDC is still not able to adequately invest in Zika testing and mosquito control in the U.S.

“Currently, there are a lot of things we can’t do,” Frieden said.

Eight months after the CDC first launched its response to Zika, Congress has approved no new funding, though members have taken several votes on related bills this year.

The Senate had struck a $1.1 billion bipartisan agreement this spring, but that was scrapped after GOP leaders advanced a different spending bill that targeted Planned Parenthood and shifted money from ObamaCare.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has scheduled another vote on the partisan bill next Tuesday, the same day that Congress returns. Democrats have said they will continue to block the GOP’s bill, with hopes of forcing their own anti-Zika package into the upcoming stopgap spending bill.

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