Health Commissioner Updates Hoteliers on Fight Against Zika

Health Commissioner Michelle Davis displays mini repellant spray while speaking before the VI Hotel and Tourism Association Sept. 16. Davis urged hospitality managers to make pocket sized repellant available to guests as part of a territory-wide response to Zika. Photo provided by Judi Shimel.[hr gap=”1″]

ST. THOMAS — The head of the VI Hotel and Tourism Association says there are some indications that fear of mosquito borne illness are keeping visitors away. Hotel association president Scott Derrickson said so while speaking to at the end of a scheduled meeting on Sept. 16.

While definitive figures reflecting fewer visitors have not been compiled yet, Derrickson pointed to reports from hotel food and beverage managers, showing a 20 to 30 percent decline in sales. The declines come during the slower summer months but follow 2015 when the number of summer visitors to the Virgin Islands were at their best.

Travel and tourism industry experts suspect the spread of Zika may have something to do with it. Derrickson said he invited Davis to encourage his members to become well informed. “That’s why I invited Dr. Davis. Most of us, we’re older. We’re not going and trying to get pregnant so we’re not as concerned about it,” he said.

Health Commissioner Michelle Davis appeared as the scheduled speaker for the hotel association meeting.

The commissioner told the audience about the combined efforts of the local health department, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization in fighting the spread of Zika.

There are currently 299 reported cases of Zika in the territory and hundreds more in neighboring Puerto Rico.

“In addition to Brazil, Zika was found in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands first, then the United States. We’ve been dealing with that since December,” Davis said.

The commissioner added that St. Thomas has the greatest number of Zika cases, compared to St. Croix and St. John. Those numbers raise concerns for the local hospitality industry because the number of travel related cases are on the rise.

The ailment is often diagnosed based on the patient’s recent travel history, their symptoms and blood test results. Symptoms of a Zika infection include muscle pain, headache, joint pain and conjunctivitis — also known as pink eye.

Most people who get Zika feel miserable for a day or two and then recover, the commissioner said. As Zika spread from South America to the Caribbean in early 2016, so did reports about severe birth defects affecting newborns.

Aggressive steps are being taken and strategies are being formed to address the problem, Davis said. Most recently the Virgin Islands was awarded $ 5 million to purchase a portable lab. Anti larval tablets are being used to control mosquito breeding around areas of standing water and some limited spraying for mosquitoes may be used.

Protection from mosquito bites is one of the best ways to avoid infections but research shows Zika can be passed between sexual partners and from pregnant women to their fetuses. Because concern for pregnant women and infants are the greatest the greatest focus on prevention lies within that population. A pregnancy registry set up by the CDC is helping agencies like Health follow the progress of pregnant women and their children as part of wider research effort, Davis said.

One of Health’s major outreach efforts centers on the distribution of Zika prevention kits that contain bed netting, male and female condoms, mosquito repellent and a laundry additive that adds a layer of protection to clothing. With help from local big box hardware stores, the Health is also encouraging retailers to stock more of the items found in the prevention kits.

One association member spoke about a recent discussion with a visiting official from C.D.C. who identified east St. Thomas as a Zika hot zone. Within that area are some of the island’s major hotel properties, including Margaritaville, Sugar Bay Resort, the Ritz-Carlton and Point Pleasant Resort.

Hoteliers and hospitality managers are also being encouraged to join the Zika fight. Davis said hospitality professionals can provide prevention materials to employees and guests; conduct public awareness campaigns and share Zika prevention kits.

Hotels, resorts, airlines and cruise ships can also share information among one another, she said. “You can perform vector control activities within the hotels, in airplanes on cruise ships,” Davis said. “You can have tiny pin repellents in hotel rooms. When someone checks into a hotel room you can give them a repellent. You can do the residual spraying. Get rid of standing water in your facilities.”

Those who want to keep up with the latest information from the CDC can participate in teleconferences and webinars. The commissioner also shared the Health Department’s Zika Hotline number at 340-712-6205.