ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The number of flesh-eating bacteria cases are at a 15-year high in Florida.
The Florida Department of Health reported 14 people have died and 71 people have been infected with Vibrio so far this year. Officials explained the spike stems from Hurricane Ian due to contaminated water.
One Florida policy manager, Emma Haydocy, said the state needs to make wastewater improvements to keep the bacteria levels down.
"It’s estimated that Florida needs over $18 billion dollars statewide to complete all the wastewater infrastructure improvements necessary to protect public and environmental health," Haydocy explained.
Haydocy said until the state sees that money at a federal level, Vibrio cases will continue to occur. Vibrio is rare flesh-eating bacteria that typically infects someone with an open wound in warm brackish sea water.
10 Tampa Bay has talked to people who have been infected. In 2019, one fisherman was infected after fishing in Palm Harbor.
The number of cases and deaths of Vibrio for this year are the highest in recent history.
So far this year, there are 71 cases and 14 people died. For comparison, the Florida Department of Health reported last year in 2021 there were 34 cases and 10 people died.
According to the department of health's online records, it's the first time ever officials have highlighted such an increase of Vibrio. State officials are blaming Hurricane Ian's impacts.
Haydocy explained Hurricane Ian was the perfect storm for Vibrio.
"When we have sewage spill events or excess nutrients from human sources, exactly what we saw with Hurricane Ian, those bacteria levels flourish," she said.
The reassuring news is, Florida Department of Health officials told 10 Tampa Bay, cases and deaths have stabilized.
Haydocy said to prevent another potential spike, people need to make wastewater improvements. She pointed to Key West as being a good example.
"They have made the conversion from septic to sewer and have seen drastic improvements in water quality," Haydocy said.
In Southwest Florida where Hurricane Ian hit, there are still over 100,000 septic systems still in use according to Surfriders.
Haydocy is working alongside Surfriders to make Florida waterways safer. At the state and federal level, they are asking for change. At the federal level, funding is needed for wastewater improvements and water quality testing programs.
At the state level, Haydocy said she is working with Surfriders to get more public notice like adding signs outside beaches where the water has bacteria.
Aside from funding, Emma says your voice can help keep the bacteria out of this beauty.
"Talk to your legislatures about making the investments into your water quality," Haydocy said.