WASHINGTON — While there are no reported cases of the Zika virus in Maryland currently, officials say it won’t be long before that changes.
The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said in a statement late last week that it expects to begin seeing cases of the virus in Maryland residents returning from infected areas.
While most state health departments in the United States are not testing for the Zika virus, Maryland plans to start testing within two weeks residents who might have been exposed to the virus.
“We are aware of Marylanders’ concerns about risks related to the virus, and we are working closely with healthcare providers to expedite testing, particularly for pregnant women,” Maryland Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary Van Mitchell said in a statement.
Three residents of Washington and one resident of Virginia so far have tested positive for the virus after traveling to infected areas outside the United States.
Maryland health officials said they are in close communication with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as Maryland hospitals and healthcare providers to watch for any possible cases of the virus.
Mitchell’s department has sent samples from Maryland residents who have traveled to infected areas to the CDC for testing, according to Public Health Deputy Secretary Dr. Howard Haft. The state said it will update the public every week with news involving the virus.
Soon, however, the agency hopes to send samples directly to its Health and Mental Hygiene public health laboratory.
State health officials also are working with the Maryland Department of Agriculture as the weather gets warmer and the prevalence of mosquitoes, which carry the virus, increases. Officials warn against having standing water around homes that may attract mosquitoes.
Members of Congress from Maryland are expressing concern about the virus.
Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski, both Democrats, joined in a Feb. 5 letter by the Senate Democratic Caucus to President Barack Obama urging him to develop a response plan for the virus, encourage communication between federal and state health departments, and support research on the virus.
In the letter, the senators encouraged the president “to take the Zika virus into consideration as you coordinate and allocate resources in the (current budget) and move forward with your upcoming FY17 budget request or subsequent amendments.”
The Obama administration announced late last week that it is requesting $1.8 billion from Congress to fund efforts to help prepare for the virus and handle an outbreak both in the states and abroad.
While no reports of mosquitoes transmitting the disease have been reported within the United States, there have been cases of the virus found in U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico, as well as in travelers returning to this country. The CDC has confirmed 50 cases of the virus in U.S. travelers between December and Feb. 5, according to the White House.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, sent a letter to the CDC and National Institutes of Health on Jan. 28, asking for the continuation of medical research and for information regarding the virus to be shared the public.
The director of the University of Maryland’s University Health Center, David McBride, sent out a notice to students Feb. 4 warning them about the virus and urging them to reconsider spring break travel plans to infected areas highlighted by the CDC.
The CDC issued a travel warning in response to the Zika outbreak in Brazil. It warned people against traveling to places with reported cases of the virus such as South America, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands.
The Baltimore City Health Department hosts information about the virus from the CDC on its homepage.