Whistleblower Sounds Alarm on Lack of Zika Testing for Puerto Rican Inmates

A prison whistleblower is calling on the federal government to screen inmates coming to South Florida from Puerto Rico for the Zika Virus.

An employee representing correctional officers at FCI Miami, the federal minimum-security prison, filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA. The complaint expresses concern about untested inmates on behalf of its employees, including pregnant women, and the community that neighbors the prison.

The US government last week declared Puerto Rico a public health emergency because of the number of people believed to have the virus that’s spread by mosquitoes. 

A spokesperson for the Bureau of Prison confirms it has 560 inmates from Puerto Rico. But wrote in an email that none has been screened because the CDC does not currently recommend “universal or routine screening.”

The complaint expresses concern about the transmission of the virus by someone who could be infected through unprotected sex, sharing tainted hypodermic needles for drugs or used tattoo needles. The complaint also mentions ponds on the property. Mosquitoes who bite an infected person can also spread the virus.

"If mosquitoes were to become infected from these individuals, who have been imported here if you will, from a high Zika zone, specifically Puerto Rico, then of course there is that possibility that someone could then be infected from that mosquito," said Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious disease professor with FIU.

"Everyone should be worried," says Rep. Carlos Curbelo, the Congressman representing the area where the prison is located. “I sympathize with these employees of the Bureau of Prisons. They have legitimate concerns. We know that in Puerto Rico Zika is widespread. To transport prisoners over without at least providing some assurances to local employees -- to the local community here for that matter that they are not carrying Zika is problem.”

Another voice calling for the inmates to be tested comes from Zoo Miami. The zoo is a neighbor and shares a fence line with the prison.

"We do treat for Zika here because our primary concern is the visitors," said Zoo Miami spokesperson Ron Magill.  "Mosquitos don't know the difference between the fence and no fence. They will fly right through it."

Magill stresses that while they are neighbors, the majority of zoo visitors are about ½ mile from the prison which is a long distance for a mosquito to travel.

Still, Magill says he joins the prison employees hoping to see the Federal Bureau of Prisons test inmates for the virus.

"It's a valid concern," Magill said. "I would hope that those people would get tested."

The Bureau of Prisons Health Services Division said in a statement it “provided detailed information and guidance on the Zika virus to staff at Bureau of Prisons institutions. This information included details on Zika facts (what it is, how it is spread, and how to prevent mosquito bites), as well as information on mosquito control and acquisition of repellent."

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