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Florida officials mum on coronavirus tests of state residents

The state’s surgeon general said the Florida Department of Health is not authorized to publish the number of people in the state being tested for the virus out of privacy concerns.

While there are no confirmed cases of novel coronavirus, or COVID-19 in Florida, state health officials say they can’t disclose how many people have been tested for the virus.

“The goal of this public health response is containment,” said state Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, who presented to the Senate Health Policy committee Tuesday. “And if there’s a confirmed case, it will absolutely be reported.”

However, Rivkees said the Florida Department of Health is not authorized to publish the number of people in the state being tested for the virus out of privacy concerns.

Senators pressed Rivkees, recalling that during the mosquito-born Zika infection outbreak in 2015 and 2016, the state frequently published the number of specimens that were being tested.

“It was important for others nearby to know this information then, because mosquitoes can fly,” Rivkees said. “[Coronavirus] can only be transmitted person to person.”

He said if the virus is eventually found to be airborne, that policy could change.

The Department of Health has created a 700-person incident management team to ready for a potential outbreak, he said, and required protocols have been shared with healthcare providers across the state .

When symptoms — which are very similar to flu — are reported, doctors are instructed to contact their county health department, administer proper treatment and collect specimens to send to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for testing. The patient is to be isolated and monitored at home while awaiting results.

As of Monday, there were more than 71,429 global cases of the virus, now known as COVID-19 — about 70,635 of them in China — and more than 1,000 deaths, with all but three of the deaths in mainland China, according to the World Health Organization. Fifteen total cases have been confirmed in the U.S. by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including a 35-year-old man in Washington state, a couple in their 60s in Chicago and eight people in California.

Hospitals say they are bracing for any effects the virus may have on Florida.

Justin Senior, CEO of Safety Net Hospitals Alliance of Florida, said the hospitals the group represents are in close communication with the state health department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

“They regularly do drills to prepare for patient surge situations,” he said. “They are currently implementing protocols to identify any risk factors in new patients, including recent international travel, and are prepared to isolate potentially infected patients.”

Earlier this week Florida health officials received testing kits for the virus, but it’s still unclear whether the tests work.

State health officials are currently sending specimens to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lab in Atlanta and waiting for results, which can take three to five days. That lab is handling specimens from across the country.

Rivkees says he hopes to have lab testing available at the state’s labs in Jacksonville, Tampa and Miami, but the kits that were issued were tainted and have to be remade and reissued.

“In the meantime, the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) will perform all testing,” he said.

At a U.S. Senate committee hearing last week, former federal health officials said state health departments should not be relying on sending specimens to federal labs and waiting days for the results to come back.

Florida Sen. Rick Scott said Tuesday he has received briefings from federal agencies and blamed the lack of coronavirus knowledge on unreliable information from Chinese health officials.

“It’s so wrong how China is handling this,” Scott told reporters on Tuesday morning at a mail distribution facility in Miami. “I think what you’ve seen is both the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the (National Institutes of Health) have been more transparent as this has gone along. The problem that they do have is that the Chinese government is not transparent, so whatever you’re getting out of China, you’ve got to take with a grain of salt.”

In response to questions about what the U.S. Surgeon General has told Florida health officials to prepare for potential spread, Scott explained federal agencies “don’t have enough information” on the spread of the virus.

“Fortunately, we don’t have, that we know of, a significant number of cases,” Scott said. What federal agencies say is “we don’t have enough cases right now to be able to do a lot of the testing ourselves, and so we’re relying a lot on what China is doing.”

John Sinnott, an infectious disease specialist at Tampa General Hospital and chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of South Florida, also presented on the virus Tuesday from a global perspective.

He said of the 15 cases in the U.S., 13 people had traveled from the region where the virus began and the other two were relatives. He added that children are largely unaffected by the virus, and that getting a flu shot, washing hands and wearing face masks can largely mitigate the risk.

While there is relative risk, he said “the knowledge of illness is critical to self protection.”

“Is the glass half full or half empty?” he said. “We don’t know.”

Miami Herald staff writer Bianco Padró Ocasio contributed to this report.