Opinion

Florida has tested 15 people for coronavirus and is monitoring 150 more. No cases yet

After weeks of silence about the number of people being tested in Florida for novel coronavirus, the respiratory disease ravaging the globe and rattling financial markets, the state’s surgeon general announced Friday that health officials are “investigating” four people who may have been infected and are monitoring 152 more.

About 700 people have been placed on watch in recent weeks after returning from “high-risk” areas, Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees told reporters. But most have cleared a “self-isolation” period without developing symptoms, and 15 people have tested negative for the virus.

There has yet to be a confirmed case in Florida.

Rivkees’ comments came following a coronavirus briefing in West Palm Beach between Gov. Ron DeSantis and Vice President Mike Pence, who on Wednesday was tapped by President Donald Trump to oversee the federal response to the broadening global outbreak.

Until Friday’s update, state officials had refused to detail the number of people who had been tested or were being monitored in Florida. Rivkees said only Thursday that state law protecting individuals’ private health information prohibited him from releasing numbers.

But DeSantis said following his meeting with Pence that he wanted the state to release as much information as possible, and he saw no threat in detailing the number of people tested or monitored for the virus. His spokeswoman said the state would begin posting the information on its website.

“Coronavirus is a rapidly evolving situation,” Rivkees told reporters, explaining the new transparency. “We know things today that we didn’t know yesterday.”

The news from Florida officials came hours after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it has significantly expanded its guidance on selecting patients who should be tested for novel coronavirus.

Federal officials said physicians should now be determining whether any patient who presents with severe pneumonia symptoms should undergo tests for novel coronavirus, regardless of their travel history. They have identified China, Iran, Italy, Japan and South Korea as countries with widespread or sustained community transmission of the disease.

No local testing option yet

That expansion of criteria for testing could pose logistical issues in South Florida, where state and local health officials have yet to shore up their ability to confirm cases of the disease without relying on sending specimens to be tested at the CDC lab in Atlanta.

Dr. David Farcy, chairman of the department of emergency medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center, said the move by the CDC was surprising because of the difficulties seen so far with testing for coronavirus, but he also said it was reasonable given the global spread of the disease.

Farcy said the next 24 to 48 hours will be crucial in determining whether state and local health officials can get testing capabilities up to speed to keep up with the expansion of criteria. He anticipated that the number of patients subject to being quarantined at home or in a hospital could rise sharply.

“There could be lots of logistical challenges,” Farcy said, adding that Mount Sinai has been preparing since early January to streamline its own protocols for identifying patients who might have coronavirus.

DeSantis, too, said he was concerned about what a surge in cases could mean for local health officials’ ability to monitor cases and for potential supply shortages for masks and other protective gear for healthcare workers. The governor also hinted that more international travel restrictions could be on the way.

South Florida on edge at busy time

The developments on Friday represented the latest shifts in the epidemiological landscape for the tourist hub of Miami-Dade as the global threat of novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, intensifies. The virus has already forced drastic responses across the world, putting South Florida on edge as it braces for two of the biggest events on its calendar: Spring Break and Ultra music fest.

As of now, case numbers remain concentrated in China, but the virus is spreading rapidly to countries outside of Asia, posing a greater risk to Florida, which regularly sees waves of travelers from Latin America and other parts of the world. The latest update from the World Health Organization had more than 83,000 people infected — about 79,000 of those in China. Novel coronavirus has killed more than 2,800, all but 67 of those fatalities occurring in China.

The WHO reported Friday afternoon that five countries — Belarus, Lithuania, Netherlands, New Zealand and Nigeria — had reported new cases of coronavirus in the previous 24 hours.

In Florida, anxiety over the capability of local officials to test for coronavirus had been heightening for more than a week as reports of testing difficulties surfaced. Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, were ramping up pressure on the governor and surgeon general to release more information, though the Republican leaders said their decision to do so was unrelated to politics.

After a private meeting with Pence that included top federal health officials, DeSantis said the state had hoped to have functional testing kits in place by now at its public health labs in Jacksonville, Tampa and Miami.

“We would like to be able to do it on the spot in these places,” he said. “Just from the discussion in there, it seems like that’s not something that’s imminent right now.”

DeSantis said Pence received the state’s concerns about local testing “loud and clear.”

A day earlier, on Thursday, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez expressed frustration that local officials had not yet received the go-ahead from the federal government to run the tests on suspected cases of novel coronavirus in state labs, meaning it would take days to receive coronavirus test results.

“It’s the largest county in the state of Florida, with a large international airport,” said Gimenez, who is running in the Republican congressional primary in Florida’s 26th District. “We should have kits, let me put it this way.”

The CDC on Friday insisted it is making progress toward that goal. The agency sought to reassure the public that it had developed new test kits as well as revised guidance for the ones state labs already had on hand. The new guidance would allow officials to use the testing kits, which were placed on hold by federal officials earlier this month after concerns over their accuracy.

After the update from the CDC, the Florida Department of Health confirmed that it had received those new instructions and was working on validating the accuracy of the tests as of Friday afternoon. As it works to validate the test, the state agency will continue to rely on sending samples to the CDC lab in Atlanta for testing, as it has been doing in past weeks.

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David Smiley is a Florida native (yes, they exist) and veteran of South Florida journalism. He’s covered schools, cops and crime, and various city halls, earning awards for stories about municipal pensions and Miami Beach’s police department. He became the Miami Herald’s political reporter in 2018 and covered the midterm elections and recount.

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