TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida officials tried to reassure residents Monday that the risk posed by a new strain of coronavirus remained low, despite revelations that two people had become the first in the state to test positive for the virus.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees and other state officials provided limited details Monday about the two cases of coronavirus on the state’s Gulf Coast identified over the weekend and emphasized the steps being taken under a statewide public health emergency to prevent its spread in the state.
Sunday night after DeSantis announced the two presumptive cases, Rivkees began implementing the emergency order, requesting help from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and asking anyone who believes they have been exposed to COVID-19 to call their county health department before they go to see a health care provider or emergency room. On Monday, the CDC confirmed the two Florida cases.
The first patient identified is a man in his 60s in Manatee County who had not been in any of the countries currently identified for restricted travel by federal authorities. This person did seek health care, has been isolated at home and will continue to remain isolated until cleared by public health officials.
“It is not known how this individual was exposed to COVID-19,” Rivkees said at the news conference. “This is a rapidly evolving situation.”
The second patient is a woman in her 20s in Hillsborough County who had recently traveled to northern Italy -- one of the areas identified for restricted travel due to the virus.
Both patients are in stable condition. The Florida Department of Health is working closely with the patients, their close contacts and health care providers to isolate and monitor persons who may have been exposed to COVID-19 and implement testing of anyone who may develop COVID-19 symptoms, including fever, cough or shortness of breath.
“Despite these cases, the overall immediate threat to the public remains low,” DeSantis said. “With that said, we do anticipate that more will test positive. We’ve taken additional actions to help contain the viruses spread.”
Rivkees said 23 people in Florida are being tested and 184 are being monitored. Since Florida authorities began tracking possible coronavirus disease cases, 795 people have been monitored.
Rivkees said 80% of all COVID-19 cases are mild, 15% require hospitalization and only 5% are especially severe, and those are in people with underlying health issues. Health officials estimate the mortality rate is under 2% -- much higher than the season flu, but much lower than SARS, the last coronavirus disease to spread around the globe.
The governor issued an executive order effective immediately directing Rivkee, the state health officer in addition to being the state’s surgeon general, to declare a public health emergency in Florida. He authorized Rivkees to take “any action necessary to protect the public health.”
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.
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Florida Sen. Marco Rubio issued a statement after the first cases were found in the state:
Florida’s first cases came out 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.
Four more deaths were reported Monday, all in the greater Seattle area.
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.
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.
“The most important thing is it will bring down the average testing time,” said Deputy Health Secretary Shamarial Roberson in a telephone interview. “It helps address this in a more efficient time.”
More than 150 Floridians who had 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.
Signs and symptoms
Symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, cough and shortness of breath. Symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days following exposure. Most people recover from COVID-19 without needing special treatment. The elderly and those with underlying medical problems like high blood pressure, heart problems and diabetes, are more likely to develop serious illness.
There is currently no vaccine to prevent COVID-19. The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus. As a reminder, the Florida Health Department always recommends everyday preventive actions to help impede the spread of respiratory diseases, including:
- Avoiding close contact with people who are sick
- Staying home when you are sick and avoiding contact with persons in poor health
- Avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands
- Covering your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then disposing of the tissue
- Washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating, after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty; and
- Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
The CDC does not recommend that asymptomatic, healthy people wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19. Facemasks should be used by people who show symptoms of COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of the disease to others. The use of facemasks is also crucial for health workers and people who are taking care of someone in close settings (at home or in a health care facility).
A person who experiences a fever and symptoms of respiratory illness, such as fever, cough or shortness of breath, within 14 days after travel from China, Italy, Iran, South Korea, Japan and any other destination under CDC travel advisory should call ahead to their health care provider and local county health department (CHD) and mention their recent travel or close contact.
If a person has had close contact with someone showing these symptoms who has recently traveled from this area or been in contact with a person with laboratory-confirmed COVID-19, they should call ahead to a health care professional and the county health department. The health care professional will work with the Department to determine if the person should be tested for COVID-19.
Visit the Department’s dedicated COVID-19 webpage at www.FloridaHealth.gov/COVID-19 for up-to-date information and guidance regarding COVID-19 in Florida.