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Florida’s ready for coronavirus, DeSantis says. So why won’t he disclose tests?

Surgeon General Scott Rivkees said Floridians should wash their hands, stay home from work if they’re sick and get their flu shot.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers remarks during Clay County Day at the Capitol, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon) [STEVE CANNON | AP]

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Thursday that the state is well-prepared to handle any cases of coronavirus, the illness originating in China that has sickened more than 81,000 people worldwide and has killed nearly 3,000. He and other state officials repeatedly emphasized that there have been no confirmed cases in the state.

Floridians should wash their hands, cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze, stay home from work if they’re sick and get their flu shot, said Surgeon General Scott Rivkees. Although the flu shot won’t prevent coronavirus — there is currently no vaccine for the illness — the symptoms are similar, and those who get influenza may worry they have coronavirus, he said.

Meanwhile, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor held a separate news conference where she said there have been no reported cases of coronavirus in the Tampa Bay region, but it’s a situation that’s constantly evolving.

And while locals may not notice anything out of the ordinary as they go about their daily lives, Castor said law enforcement and emergency health officials have already begun “closely monitoring” places where people come in and out of the county, including airports, Port Tampa Bay and bus terminals.

The state has created a web page where they said they will publish any new information on the epidemic. But there is one piece of data they are declining to share: how many people in Florida have been tested for the virus.

Related: Florida officials mum on coronavirus tests of state residents

DeSantis was grilled by reporters at Thursday’s news conference about the omission, which he said is being made to follow the law.

“I don’t think I’m allowed to go into the numbers,” he said. “I actually wanted to give all the numbers but they pointed me to the regulation of the statute.”

According to a rule in Florida Administrative Code, information about epidemiological investigations will only be released “if determined as necessary by the State Surgeon General” based on certain criteria, such as whether the disease is highly infectious, there is a potential for future outbreaks and there would be an inability to identify specific people based on that information.

Rivkees said those criteria have not been not met because coronavirus is only considered “moderately infectious” by the state and there is a low risk of future outbreaks without any confirmed cases in Florida.

Related: 'Sense of fear': Ex-colleagues warn of DeSantis' surgeon general pick

The testing itself is tricky. States like Florida were given kits by the federal government so they could perform tests for the coronavirus. But those were faulty, and so all testing samples — such as oral or nasal swabs, or saliva — collected at local hospitals or county health departments must be sent to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The results come back three to five days later.

DeSantis said they are awaiting new testing kits, but that an epidemiology team in Florida’s Department of Health has been working to prepare since early January.

“Our response will evolve based on updated information and guidance from our nation’s top experts in communicable diseases," he said. "All levels of government have been engaged.”

For now, the federal government is declaring that no foreigners who have visited China within the past 14 days are allowed to enter the United States. All flights containing Americans returning from China are being directed to 11 international airports, none of which are in Florida, DeSantis said.

For flights from the Hubei province of China where the coronavirus is especially concentrated, passengers are required to be quarantined for two weeks at a federal facility. Everyone else flying in from China will receive a health screening before they are allowed to return home, but are asked to “self-isolate” for 14 days, and are contacted by their local Florida Department of Health officials for monitoring.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, self-isolation includes staying home except to get medical treatment, and remaining in separate rooms away from other people and pets in the same home.

When asked about people returning on flights from other areas that are also experiencing high volumes of the sickness, such as South Korea and Italy, DeSantis said those decisions are made by the federal government.

Shortly after DeSantis’ news conference, two Democratic state senators, Sen. José Javier Rodriguez of Miami and Victor Torres of Orlando held a last-minute conference of their own, calling on DeSantis to be more transparent about how many tests have been performed and where.

Rodriguez emphasized that he is confident in the state’s preparedness, and claimed he’s not trying to make this into a political battle. But the DeSantis administration’s interpretation of the law is “new” and “incorrect" when it comes to withholding top-line numbers, he said.

During the Zika outbreaks of 2015 and 2016 the state frequently published how many specimens had been tested.

“Information bolsters confidence in our system,” Rodriguez said. “Making sure that everybody is aware of the aggregate data is extremely important in preserving that confidence.”

He said he will be filing an amendment to a bill in the Senate Rules committee on Monday that would tweak the law to make it clear that they cannot withhold the number of people who’ve been tested.

On Thursday, Castor stood alongside a team of elected officials and emergency preparedness experts to deliver an update to Hillsborough County residents on how their community is preparing for the virus.

“We’ve hosted countless major national events here and each year, as we conduct major medical surge exercises to test our hospitals and medical system response capabilities, our collaborative approach to these incidences makes us stronger and more resilient when it comes to responding to any incident,” Castor said.

Fire rescue personnel and first responders throughout the Tamps Bay area will be “extra diligent” in checking patients for symptoms of respiratory illnesses that could indicate infection, Castor said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have yet to issue any recommendation to take precautions like wearing medical masks, and unlike many elected officials throughout the country Castor said she does not see the spread of coronavirus to the Tampa Bay region as “being inevitable.”

For now, the best advice residents can follow is to go back to basics, County Commission Chairman Les Miller said.

“We all know how to handle the flu and colds, and I’m told coronavirus is no different,” Miller said. “Wash your hands often, use hand sanitizer, avoid people who are sick, and if you are sick stay home.”

The only other preventative measures currently known are “things you don’t want to do, like smoking,” said Dr. Charles Lockwood, Senior Vice President of USF Health.

“Smoking turns out to be protective, but it’s very bad to do and I won’t be recommending that,” Lockwood said.

“There are 327 million Americans and there may be one case in California where this was community acquired, so at this point it is not a public health crisis,” Lockwood said.

For Florida, the biggest risk factor is its tourism industry, Lockwood said. But with very few international flights coming in and out of the area it’s highly unlikely the Tampa Bay area would see signs of coronavirus for many months or even years, he said. Even in worst case scenario projections, the earliest the virus might reach the Tampa Bay area would likely be around August, he said, “which gives us a long time to prepare.”

“So if you have a cold now in Florida, you don’t have coronavirus,” Lockwood said.

Of the very little that is known about coronavirus, there is reason to be optimistic, he said.

While coronaviruses are fairly common – they cause 25 percent of all colds – this strand of the virus is a mystery to pathologists, Lockwood said. Two previous strands of the virus that caused epidemics — SARS and MERS — had much more severe symptoms and higher fatality rates, but they were also much harder to get infected.

But even though this strand is easier to catch, about 80 percent of people infected with the virus are either asymptomatic or experience very mild symptoms of infection.

Those who do experience symptoms begin experiencing fever, cough, sore throat and breathlessness.

Most of the 15 percent of people who experience more severe symptoms are elderly, Lockwood said, because the virus tends to bind to the upper respiratory tract, like a head cold, as opposed to the lower respiratory tract, which would produce symptoms similar to pneumonia.

“It turns out the best predictor of the disease is a low level of oxygen in your blood, so if you’re short of breath and you’re in an environment where you know people are getting infected you should see a doctor,” Lockwood said.

The risk of infection climbs for those over the age of 60 with multiple other medical problems, particularly heart disease.

“But if you’re under 60 and healthy the risk is much, much lower,” Lockwood said. “And if you’re a child, it’s even lower still.”

“Children are actually at a very low risk of infection,” Lockwood said.

Still Superintendent Jeff Eakins said the Hillsborough County school district will be showing educational videos to students about the virus, increasing messaging to parents and emphasizing good hygiene behaviors. The school district is also installing hand sanitizer dispensers on every school bus and at every school entrance in the coming days.

Residents can receive text messages with real time updates on the virus by registering for the city and county’s emergency mass notification systems by texting Tampa Ready to 888777 and registering for HCFL Alerts online here.

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