Florida officials waited 24 hours to inform public of coronavirus cases
TAMPA — Facing questions about why his administration waited 24 hours to inform Floridians about a positive coronavirus test, Gov. Ron DeSantis defended the state’s response to the public health threat during a press conference in Tampa Monday.
“I think from the beginning the Department of Health in Florida, they’ve been very proactive,” DeSantis said, intervening as members of the media questioned his surgeon general about why he waited to release the information about two cases on the state’s west coast Sunday night when he knew about them Saturday.
After weeks of Floridians waiting and watching from afar as coronavirus spread worldwide, the deadly health epidemic has finally arrived in America’s third most populous state and it has brought with it a torrent of public concern and questions about the state’s preparedness.
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The Florida Department of Health put out a press release late Sunday night announcing two individuals had tested positive for coronavirus, and DeSantis issued an executive order late Sunday directing his surgeon general to declare a public health emergency.
There were few new details released Monday about the two positive coronavirus cases, one in Hillsborough County and one in Manatee County. Instead, the governor and Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees spent much of the news conference offering general guidance about the virus and seeking to allay fears.
Rivkees did note that the Hillsborough case is a woman in her 20s who traveled recently to northern Italy, which is experiencing a significant number of coronavirus cases. And he filled in a few more details about the Manatee County case, which he said is a man in his 60s who sought medical treatment for pneumonia.
Both patients are stable. Both have been isolated and health officials are working to isolate and monitor anyone they may have exposed to the virus. The Manatee man has no travel history, raising concerns that the virus has been spreading in Florida undetected.
“It is not known how this individual was exposed,” Rivkees said.
Overall, though, Rivkees said the risk to the public is “low” and people should “go about your normal business.” DeSantis also emphasized that “the overall immediate threat to the public remains low.”
But the way Florida’s first coronavirus cases spilled into public view may not inspire confidence that the state is on top of the outbreak.
Word began leaking out about one of the coronavirus cases Sunday afternoon after a letter on Doctors Hospital of Sarasota stationary with details about a patient who “presumptively tested positive” for coronavirus began circulating widely.
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Doctors Hospital did not share any information publicly Sunday afternoon, referring questions to the Sarasota County Health Department. An individual with the health department’s after-hours answering service Sunday evening told the Herald-Tribune that the department was currently “not answering any questions on this.”
Another reporter said at the news conference Monday that a health department representative called the report of a positive coronavirus test a “hoax.”
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said she was told about the Hillsborough County case Sunday around noon.
But it wasn’t until late Sunday evening the state issued a press release, which only came after reporters, lawmakers, health officials and members of the public spent much of Sunday frantically trying to confirm if the reports of a positive coronavirus case in Florida were true.
Asked Monday why it took so long to inform the public, Rivkees said the state was waiting for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to confirm the state’s test results.
The fact that the state waited 24 hours to publicize the positive coronavirus cases was revealed after the Herald-Tribune asked Rivkees about the information that was circulating widely Sunday before any official statement from the Florida Department of Health.
“As soon as we became aware that this individual had COVID-19 (coronavirus), which actually was Saturday evening, we launched an immediate response,” Rivkees said, adding that the state employed containment measures to identify individuals who “may have been exposed.”
“Doctor, you knew about this 24 hours before it was publicly announced?” a reporter asked.
“We became aware of this Saturday evening,” Rivkees responded.
“And it wasn’t announced to the public until Sunday night?” the reporter pressed.
“In terms of what the process is at the present time, is that these individuals are identified as presumptive positives (by a state laboratory)… and then according to the CDC we’re supposed to send the samples to them where they do confirmatory testing,” Rivkees responded. “We are still waiting on that, but because of the situation — and we had already launched full measures in terms of containment and evaluation — we decided that even though while we are waiting for the CDC confirmatory testing that it was important to go ahead and inform the public.”
Document:Read the governor's executive order on the coronavirus public health emergency
The CDC later confirmed the positive tests.
As the media continued to question Rivkees, the governor stepped in to defend the state’s response and then ended the 25-minute news conference as members of the media were pressing for more information. DeSantis and state officials held a second press conference Monday in Miami to discuss the coronavirus cases.
DeSantis said Monday that 23 people have been tested for coronavirus in Florida and 184 individuals currently are being monitored, while 795 have been monitored at some point.
As of Saturday three state laboratories in Florida began testing for coronavirus, generating faster results than tests sent to the CDC, which can take up to five days to process the tests, said DeSantis, who toured the Tampa lab that conducts the testing after his press conference.
State officials are urging people who are worried that they may have been exposed to the coronavirus to contact their county health department before going to a doctor’s office or hospital.
“If you look at this virus, the vast, vast majority of people who acquire it will not require hospitalization and so if you work through your local… county health department rather than showing up at an urgent care center that will help with the resources for other needs,” DeSantis said.
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The governor noted that DOH is working with the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration to ensure that special precautions are taken at nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Elderly individuals and those who already have health problems are most at risk.
“If you look at how this virus has unfolded, folks who are middle age, younger, healthy, tend to weather it fine,” DeSantis said. “It tends to have a most deleterious effect on people that have either underlying health conditions or that are elderly.”
The state has set up a web page — www.floridahealth.gov/COVID-19 — to provide the public with updates on coronavirus cases in Florida.
Rivkees urged Florida residents to check the CDC website before traveling abroad to see if their destinations are coronavirus hot spots. Anyone returning from places where the virus is prevalent should “self-isolate for 14 days,” he said.
Castor said the Hillsborough County woman who tested positive did self-isolate and “hasn’t had contact with anybody in the Tampa Bay area.” She said multiple people called her while she was in church Sunday around noon to tell her about the case.
Asked whether state health officials acted quickly enough to inform the public, Castor said “that was addressed by the governor.”
Manatee County commissioners Vanessa Baugh and Betsy Benac attended the press conference Monday. Baugh said she initially saw reports about the coronavirus case on Facebook and “I thought it was a hoax.”
“I did make one phone call and was told it had not been verified so I didn’t give it a lot of credence” before state officials confirmed the two cases Sunday night, Baugh added.
Asked about the 24-hour delay in informing the public, Baugh said: “Like any other thing like this when it first comes up and it first happens it just takes time for it to get organized and straight but I think in the last 24 hours, since we did find out for sure that we do have a patient suffering with the coronavirus, that it’s been put together quite well at this point.”
Benac said people began calling her as word about a potential coronavirus case leaked out.
“I said I’m trying to get information also; my thought was that I wanted to make sure that the CDC had confirmed it,” Benac said, adding that in the age of immediate information sharing online it’s important to make sure that what’s being put out to the public is accurate.
More:Coronavirus updates: Officials announce confirmed cases in Florida
State Sen. Janet Cruz also attended the press conference Monday and said afterward that she has “every reason to believe” state officials are “working very hard at this.”
But Cruz added that “I would have liked to have seen a quicker response time.”
“I think as we formulate and move forward we’ll just have to do a better job of making sure that the public feels safe and informed,” Cruz said.