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Navy, Legislature screen as Florida grapples with virus

Florida National Guard steps in to assist with coronavirus outbreak in Broward County
Florida National Guard steps in to assist with coronavirus outbreak in Broward County

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Navy is isolating sailors at a major Florida base because they may have contracted the coronavirus, Florida lawmakers will be screened before they are allowed into chambers, and a third beach popular with spring breakers will close next week.

State health officials were preparing to jump on any clusters of confirmed infections that might arise at a nursing home, hospital or elsewhere as the number of cases jumped by almost half Wednesday. They want to prevent an outbreak similar to one that happened at a Seattle-area nursing home, which has been linked to more than 30 COVID-19 deaths.

"If a cluster of confirmed cases were to be discovered in Florida, the department would move quickly to engage with and isolate any infected individuals to prevent further spread," said Alberto Moscoso, the state health department's spokesman.

The Navy said at least 18 sailors and others at Naval Air Station-Jacksonville are in self-isolation awaiting tests to see whether they have the virus, which has infected more than 320 people in Florida and killed at least seven. Base spokeswoman Kaylee Larocque said there have been no positive tests so far. She couldn't say what led the personnel to be isolated from the 21,000 sailors and others who work at the base.

Meanwhile, the Florida Legislature was scheduled to reconvene for the final day of its annual session on Thursday, but lawmakers said they would dispense with some usual traditions, including the ceremonial "hanky drop" signaling to both chambers that they can gavel the session closed.

Instead, state House members were to undergo screenings, including a temperature check, before being allowed into the chamber. As a final piece of business, the House and Senate will consider a $93.2 billion budget to send to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis said Wednesday that he wanted to ramp up testing. Only about 3,700 Floridians have been tested so far as efforts to expand testing capability are pushed so state officials can get a more accurate picture of the disease's spread. Combined, more than half of the confirmed cases are in neighboring counties, Miamia-Dade and Broward.

“We need to do way more tests,” DeSantis said. He said kits that will allow 625,000 people to be tested have been distributed.

But there are not enough swabs to collect samples from mouths and noses. The state has about a million swabs on order, officials said.

"The number one questions is: How many people are carrying it that are asymptomatic? And if I knew the answer to that question, that would be a great thing to know," the governor said.

State and local officials have told people to self-isolate, have shuttered the state's bars and limited restaurant capacity and hours. Walt Disney World, Universal-Orlando Resort and other theme parks are closed, as are some beaches.

Houses of worship have called off services, including Catholic churches in the Miami and Tampa areas, which made announcements Wednesday. The state's biggest malls, Sawgrass Mills and Aventura, announced Wednesday that they would close starting Thursday.

To date, 19 senior living facilities have had patients tested. Five firefighters and a police officer were self-isolating after they had contact with residents at Fort Lauderdale's Atria Willow Wood assisted living community, where one person died of the disease. Two other people who died tested negative for the disease.

Jacksonville officials said four of the city's 13 infections were linked to a senior living facility, Camelia at Deerwood. Managers there said they were working with investigators.

Garay Holland traveled Wednesday from Bee Branch, Arkansas, to visit his 97-year-old mother at Camelia.

"I might just stand outside her window and wave, (while) talking to her on the cellphone. At least she'll know I got here as quick as I could," said Holland, 78.

Despite national warnings to stay home and practice social distancing, tourists and locals flocked Wednesday to Clearwater Beach, which was open and packed beneath clear, sunny skies Wednesday. The city announced in the afternoon that it would close the beach on Monday, following the lead of other communities including Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale.

Sarah Kelley, a St. Louis grocery store section manager, agreed that visiting the beach with her two teenage sons may not have been the best idea. “It is a great festering Petri dish," she said. But with everyone trying to stay apart, she and her sons took the risk and even went inside a surf shop.

“We are trying not to touch anything,” she said.

The new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, for most people, but older adults and those with existing health problems can develop severe complications, including pneumonia. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

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This story has been edited to clarity that lawmakers will be screened, not tested.

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Spencer reported from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Associated Press reporters Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida; Adriana Gomez Licon and Freida Frisaro in Miami; Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg, Florida; Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida; and photographer Chris O'Meara in Clearwater, Florida, contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.