March 11, 2016 (Humacao, Puerto Rico) -- Coasting through the streets in a white Jeep Cherokee, Jose Baez holds a cell phone up to his ear with one hand; with the other, he waves down a passing police cruiser.
He has just come from an auto shop, where dozens of tires sit piled up on the sidewalk. Mosquitoes buzz around them.
Baez shakes his head. He’s the director of emergency management in this city of 80,000 people, nestled into a lush corner of Puerto Rico’s eastern coast.
He’s most often on call when weather disasters strike. But since February, when Puerto Rico’s governor declared a public health emergency because of the Zika virus, it has been his job to try to reduce the local mosquito population.
He is trying, but this foe is coming at him on all fronts. It’s proving to be a challenge more difficult than any storm he has weathered.
The people who own the tire shops, called gombas, are supposed to at least cover the tires so they don’t get wet and provide breeding grounds for Zika-spreading mosquitos. But most don’t bother. Baez warns them and then slaps them with a fine if they don’t comply.
“This one is right around the corner from a gynecologist’s office,” he says, pointing to one of the worst offenders.
His men are at the business with a truck now to haul off the tires, but the owner of the shop has told him that it isn’t a good time. They want him to come back.
“You see, they don’t want to do anything,” he says, exasperated.
He asks the cops to cite the owner of the tire shop.
Baez knows that pregnant women are at great risk from Zika. Mounting scientific evidence suggests that the virus can cause grave birth defects, damaging a developing baby’s brain, eyes, and nervous system. The virus is transmitted primarily through mosquitoes.
Humacao is where the island’s first locally transmitted Zika case was found. But when asked if he has known anyone who’s gotten sick with Zika yet, Baez shakes his head. “My friends? My neighbors? No,” he says. “I hope I never know anyone who has Zika.”