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U.S. nearing end of Zika-fighting funds as cases start to pile up

Without more money from Congress, federal funds being used to fight the Zika virus are likely to run out around Labor Day, the Obama administration has announced.

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell wrote Congress on Wednesday, to alert legislators to the fact that emergency money has nearly been exhausted in mosquito control and surveillance efforts, and will likely be depleted by September.

“While the arrival of Zika in the continental United States is a development that we expected and planned for, it underscores the urgency that we must do everything possible to minimize the impact that Zika will have on Americans both here in the continental U.S., and in Puerto Rico where there has been a dramatic increase in the number of Zika infections,” Burwell wrote to five different lawmakers, including Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Congress is in the middle of a seven-week recess, and won’t return until Sept. 6. But Burwell’s letter said 13 cases of Zika have now been reported in Florida, and the Summer Olympics are scheduled to start Friday in Rio – further south, and therefore more prone to the mosquito-borne virus that U.S. travelers may unknowingly carry home.

Both political parties are accusing each other of playing politics with the issue. House Speaker Paul Ryan has been notably outspoken, issuing statements and editorials about Zika every few days during the recess.

In an op-ed published Thursday in USA Today, Ryan said the Obama administration hasn’t even spent the anti-Zika funds that already are available to him.

In addition to those funds, the administration asked Congress for $1.9 billion back in February, but the House voted to appropriate $1.1 billion instead – but even that funding was blocked by Senate Democrats who said they were concerned about other parts of the spending bill.

“They blocked our plan not once, but twice — a blatant ploy in an election year. Because of their actions, this funding is in limbo. It shouldn’t be,” Ryan said of Democrats.

For their part, Democrats accuse Republicans of filling the funding bill with ideological “poison pills,” such as language restricting birth control for women.

In a letter Thursday to Ryan and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, 40 Democrats plus independent Sen. Bernie Sanders urged the two congressional leaders to call Congress back into an emergency session.

“The problems the American people confront do not disappear simply because Congress does,” the senators wrote. “In the case of the rapidly expanding Zika crisis, the problem has grown significantly worse since the Republican-led Congress went on recess. We urge you to immediately cancel the remainder of the congressional recess and get back to work to help the American public, especially women and families, amidst this crisis.”

Burwell’s letter said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) will be “severely limited” without more resources.

“In addition, CDC will be severely constrained in its ability to provide any additional funding to states and localities, and in its ability to help manage additional local Zika outbreaks, including sending emergency teams to be on-site and testing specimens to determine the presence of Zika virus in communities,” she said.