Florida’s governor disclosed late Sunday that two people had become the first in his state to test “presumptively positive” for COVID-19 and ordered his top health officer to declare a statewide public health emergency.
On Monday afternoon, the cases were officially confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to the Florida Department of Health website.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a statement that the cases arose in the counties of Manatee and Hillsborough. His announcement did not identify the individuals. COVID-19 is caused by a member of the coronavirus family.
Officials said they learned of both cases Saturday night after both individuals tested positive in local labs and were awaiting further confirmation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That confirmation happened about 48 hours later.
There are eight other cases pending test local results, according to the Florida Department of Health.
Florida’s surgeon general Dr. Scott Rivkees said the patient in the Tampa area is a woman in her 20s who recently traveled to Itlay, which has been among the countries hardest hit by the spread of the coronavirus outside Asia. The patient is stable and under isolation at home, Rivkees said. Health officials are working closely with her to identify her close contacts and anyone who may have been exposed.
Authorities said the Manatee County patient is a man in his 60s had not been in any of the countries currently identified for restricted travel by federal authorities. It’s unknown how he was exposed to Covid-19, according to Rivkees. Health officials are working to determine how he was exposed to the virus. The patient is hospitalized.
“It is not known how this individual was exposed to COVID-19,” Rivkees said at the news conference. "This is a rapidly evolving situation.”
[INTERACTIVE MAP: Spread of coronavirus in real-time]
State officials said both people sought health care and would be under isolation until cleared by public health officials.
The governor’s announcement said he was issuing an executive order effective immediately directing the state health officer and surgeon general to declare a public health emergency in Florida. He authorized Rivkees to take “any action necessary to protect the public health.”
Rivkees subsequently said his department was moving ahead with those plans while “working directly with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention” at the federal level and with local medical providers.
Rivkee’s own statement said the immediate steps were being taken “to ensure these individuals receive the proper treatment and that anyone who has come into contact with them is following the necessary protocols, limiting or stopping any further spread.”
The governor designated the Florida Department of Health as the lead state agency to coordinate emergency responses and to actively monitor all those with apparent or suspected infections for a period of at least 14 days -- or until tests turn up negative.
Rivkees said the state has enacted new measures for people to follow if they are traveling to any of the countries with CDC advisories, including China, South Korea and Italy. Those individuals should self-isolate for 14 days when they return. if someone becomes ill during self-isolation they should contact the department of health prior to seeking medical attention in person.
All health care facilities were also asked to review the expanded definitions of when to consider testing for COVID-19. The state has instructed individuals with lower-respiratory symptoms should be tested. The symptoms of the coronavirus include fever, cough and shortness of breath.
The Florida developments came on a day when health officials in Washington state confirmed a second person there had died from the new strain of coronavirus -- a man in his 70s from a nursing facility near Seattle where dozens of people were sick and had been tested for the virus.
It also came as state and local authorities around the country stepped up testing for the illness as the number of new cases grew nationwide, with new infections announced in Washington state, as well as California, Illinois, Rhode Island and New York.
CORONAVIRUS: Florida is under a public health emergency after two likely cases have appeared in Hillsborough and Manatee counties. @GovRonDeSantis is expected to give an update on the state’s response this morning. https://t.co/QXyHI9loV5 pic.twitter.com/uvOiz5bb4h— Mark Lehman (@MarkLehman6) March 2, 2020
Three Florida Department of Health labs are now able to test for the new coronavirus, cutting wait times significantly for results, state officials had announced Saturday.
The Florida health officials said in an email that labs in Tampa, Jacksonville and Miami can conduct the tests, which previously had to be sent to federal labs. They said that would mean results should be available 24 to 48 hours afterward -- instead of within days.
Those tests are then sent on to the CDC for further testing, those test results can take up to 5 days.
“The most important thing is it will bring down the average testing time,” Deputy Health Secretary Shamarial Roberson said in a telephone interview. “It helps address this in a more efficient time.”
Florida officials had been awaiting approval for one component of the test from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Roberson said. That approval came Friday.
Sunday’s announcement comes a day after health officials and DeSantis said no cases of the virus had been reported in Florida, but four people who may have been exposed in China and exhibited possible symptoms were awaiting test results. Another 15 similar people tested negative.
In addition, more than 150 Floridians who have returned from China but have not shown symptoms are being monitored until the two-week incubation period passes and asked not to have contact with others, the officials said.
For weeks, Florida health officials had declined to release information about possible infections, citing privacy concerns, but reversed themselves Friday amid mounting questions and political pressure to be more forthcoming to head off any public panic.
The development on the state lab testing was first reported by the Miami Herald. Florida had been waiting for federal officials to allow them to do their own lab testing.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio issued a statement after the cases were announced.
"The health and safety of every Floridian, especially the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, remain my highest priority. I will continue to work with the Trump Administration and Governor DeSantis to ensure our state has the resources and information it needs. I am working with my colleagues in Congress on a funding package to ensure Florida has every available federal resource to respond to the coronavirus, and I look forward to its swift passage in the coming weeks.”