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In Miami, Zika’s arrival greeted with worry — and shrugs

A Miami-Dade County mosquito control worker sprays around a home in the Wynwood area of Miami, which local transmittion of the Zika virus is occurring. (Alan Diaz/AP))
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MIAMI -- Liz Tracy, 36, pregnant and worried, has had a long few days. When news came last week about a handful of locally transmitted Zika cases in Miami, she called her doctor right away, eager to get tested for the virus.

“It wasn’t easy,” said Tracy, a grant writer for the Perez Art Museum, which is near the neighborhood where authorities confirmed Monday that the outbreak had grown by 10 cases. “You had to be a real pushy person to get a Zika test.”

She said she was advised to go to an urgent care center, but it was not administering the test that detects Zika antibodies in the blood. When she went back to her doctor’s office, she was told the test would cost $160. She called the local health department, which arranged for a free test. But then came the waiting game.

“After taking the test, they told me I had to wait another five days for the results," Tracy said. "I was like, 'This is a timely, delicate situation. I can’t wait on this.’”

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In Miami these days, and particularly in the Wynwood neighborhood where transmission is occurring, she's not the only woman waiting and worrying. Some doctors' offices have been inundated with calls and emails from pregnant women concerned about Zika. The virus is linked to severe birth defects such as microcephaly, a condition where babies are born with abnormally small heads and often underdeveloped brains.

Some residents clearly are taking precautions. At a Walgreens at 29th Street and Biscayne Boulevard, the edge of the one-square-mile infection area identified by public health officials, shelves for insect repellent were bare this week. The latest health warnings contributed to the sudden run on bug spray, a store manager said.

And yet the epicenter of Miamia's Zika outbreak remains vibrant and crowded. The outdoor bars, cafes and art galleries of Wynwood, a trendy neighborhood replete with murals and exquisite graffiti, were bustling. Tourists posed for pictures in front of whimsical wall murals and milled through the area's art galleries, largely unconcerned about the virus that has prompted federal health authorities for the first time to warn pregnant women to avoid traveling to a part of the continental United States. Popular haunts like Panther Coffee and Wynwood Diner were packed.

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The threat of mosquito bites wasn’t enough to keep Yana Grytsenko away. Dressed in small jean shorts and a black cut-off top, the 27-year-old woman from Ukraine walked along Second Avenue, Wynwood’s main drag.

“I come down to Wynwood for pole dance classes,” Grytsenko said. “I cannot skip it.”

Earlier in the afternoon, a friend had cautioned her not to go to the area, which is just north of downtown, because of the federal advisory. She came anyway.

“I don’t think it is that serious,” she said, apparently aware the virus causes minor or no symptoms in the vast majority of adults. “I’m not getting pregnant. You’re still going to live.”

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At the Mexican eatery Coyo Taco, three women in their early 20s were finishing dinner at a table on the open-air front porch. None had put on mosquito repellent. Umi Makhlouf, a 20-year-old student from North Miami Beach, said she first heard about Zika while visiting family in Brazil this past February.

“I didn’t hear about it in Miami until I went to give blood three days ago,” Makhlouf said. “They asked me if I had it or if I had sex with someone who has it.”

Her friend, Fatima Najib, said she also wasn't generally concerned about contracting the virus. “I’m a little worried, but what can you do?” she asked. “Mosquito bites are common here. You just have to go on living your life.”

At Gramps, a popular local watering hole, about 40 people sat in chairs on the outdoor patio to watch a screening of Pokemon: The First Movie. Bar owner Adam Gersten said he had not seen a decline in business since the outbreak was detected last week. “Right now, nobody cares,” he said. “I’ll start worrying if a DJ or a band calls me to say they can’t come in because of Zika.”

But for all those shrugging off Zika's arrival in Miami, others could not afford to be complacent.

"Zika is personal and professional for me," said Karla Maguire, an obstetrician at the University of Miami who also is several months pregnant with her second child.

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In recent days, Maguire has gotten a burst of calls and emails from her patients, some of whom have spent time in Wynwood, asking for advice and wondering whether they should get tested for the virus. Mainly, she's given them advice she also has followed -- wear mosquito repellent with DEET and avoid being outside as much as possible.

She realizes that's easier said than done. During her first pregnancy, Maguire often took long walks in the evening and spent a lot of time near the beach. These days, she stays hunkered down in her air-conditioned home and at work. Her husband and mother-in-law take turns taking her young son out to play.

This trendy Miami area is ground zero for the first Zika transmission in the continental U.S.

MIAMI, FL - JULY 30: Sharon Nagel, a Miami-Dade County mosquito control inspector, walks through the Wynwood neighborhood looking for mosquitos or breeding areas where she kills the mosquitos with larvicide granules or a fogger spraying pesticide as the county fights to control the Zika virus outbreak on July 30, 2016 in Miami, Florida. There have been a reported four individuals that have been infected with the Zika virus by local mosquitoes which makes them the first known cases of the virus being transmitted by mosquitoes in the continental United States. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

"It's just a scary time, because we don't have a lot of answers to things," Maguire said. "I go through periods where I'm a little anxious. I think everyone is. [But] I try to follow the guidelines."

Christine Curry, another University of Miami obstetrician, feels the same. She has seen a similar flood of emails and calls from patients in recent days. She said she does her best to hear out their concerns, assess any possible exposure they might have had to mosquitoes that carry the virus and answer whatever questions she can -- though answers can be difficult to come by when it concerns Zika.

"The fascinating thing about this epidemic is my patients know information sometimes before I do," Curry said. "We're all in this together."

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez on Tuesday said he had authorized a mosquito control team to begin larvicide and adulticide aerial spraying every seven days for the next four weeks. “This spraying will begin, weather-permitting, tonight or tomorrow morning,” Gimenez said, “and will take place in a 10-square-mile area, with the area north of downtown Miami which includes the Wynwood neighborhood, at the center of the effort."

On Tuesday, the Florida health department said it was investigating a new case of local infection, bringing the total number of locally spread cases to 15. The department said the infection took place outside the one-mile-square area identified infection area. It provided no additional details except to say it took place within Miami-Dade County. Personnel are doing mosquito control and collecting blood and urine samples from individuals in the area of the confirmed case.

Back on the ground, the tense days of waiting are over for Tracy, the pregnant woman who had scrambled to get a Zika test late last week. The results came back negative. For now, she in the clear.

Her doctor has asked her to come in for another test that will show if she has ever been infected by Zika. As a frequent visitor to Wynwood and the surrounding area, Tracy said she worries about the threat that feels, in some ways, outside her control.

“I feel so vulnerable right now,” Tracy said. “All the bug spray in the world can’t keep away that one mosquito. You are trying to avoid a common bug that lives in your neighborhood that is going to destroy the brain cells of your unborn child, on top of already going through the unpleasant side effects of being pregnant.”

Some relatives have suggested that she leave Miami until the outbreak fades.

“I don’t have that luxury. I have to work," she said. "This is nerve racking.”

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