TAMPA — Health officials expect more people to test positive for coronavirus in Florida after the state announced its first two cases in Hillsborough and Manatee counties.
“The vast majority of people who acquire it will not require hospitalization,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said Monday at a Tampa news conference where he declared a public health emergency. “Despite these cases, the overall immediate threat to the public remains low.”
Florida’s first two cases of the illness, known technically as COVID-19, are a woman in her 20s in Hillsborough County who is isolated and receiving treatment at home, and a man in his 60s in Manatee County who has been hospitalized with symptoms of pneumonia. The woman recently had returned from northern Italy, the site of an outbreak, but Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees said doctors are still unsure how the man contracted the virus.
Both patients tested positive in state health laboratories over the weekend. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the positive results midday Monday.
DeSantis said he has talked to state Senate President Bill Galvano, R- Bradenton, in hopes that the Legislature can quickly direct funding to the response. Right now, local health departments have not received additional funding or more staff to aid in testing and surveillance, even though Rivkees said the county health departments are the first line of defense.
To contain the threat, he urged residents who think they may be ill or exposed to coronavirus to reach out to their health department first before seeing a doctor or going to an emergency room or clinic.
At the event, health officials and community leaders avoided shaking hands, instead bumping elbows to promote prevention.
The governor said that Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the federal response to coronavirus, told him the plan is for the federal government to reimburse some state costs. He added that he hoped Congress would also offer help if more funding becomes necessary.
“They often times don’t act quick enough," he said.
State Sen. Janet Cruz, who attended DeSantis’ press conference in Tampa, noted Florida hasn’t seen a health scare like coronavirus in a long time.
“Can I tell you unequivocally that we are prepared? No. But there is a high alert, and people are scrambling to make sure we are meeting the needs of Floridians,” the Tampa Democrat said.
Cruz, who sits on the Senate’s health policy committee, said the current reported cases were likely the “tip of the iceberg,” and that the number of cases is likely to increase “exponentially.”
On Friday, the CDC expanded its criteria for who should be tested for coronavirus. Rivkees said the man in Manatee was in the hospital for five days before he was tested. And he was tested only because of the expanded criteria, which grew from testing patients who’d recently traveled to China, Italy and South Korea to include some people with respiratory infections of unknown origin.
While the Manatee man tested positive on Saturday, the health department did not make the case public until late Sunday. Rivkees faced some criticism Monday on waiting a full day to alert the public of the case.
“I was disappointed that Floridians were not made aware of this, and that they held onto this information for 24 hours,” Cruz said.
Across Florida, 23 people have been tested for coronavirus, DeSantis said. Eight of those tests are pending. The state is monitoring 184 people currently, and 795 people have been monitored for symptoms. Monitoring can include health officials making personal visits to perform checks like taking a person’s temperature.
Health officials told Tampa Bay area hospitals Monday that there is no known community transmission tied to the two local cases right now. The woman who tested positive for coronavirus in Hillsborough was diagnosed by the local health department and not at a hospital. She is quarantined at her home and being treated by the health department from her home and at a local clinic. Another woman who traveled with her to Italy also is being self-quarantined in Hillsborough.
Health department employees are still investigating the Manatee case, and identifying people who may have been exposed to the virus. The man also has some underlying health conditions. Two health workers and their families who fear they’ve been exposed in the Sarasota area are undergoing a voluntary quarantine.
The coronavirus outbreak began in China, which has had the vast majority of the more than 89,000 cases documented around the world. More than 3,000 people have died, including at least six in the state of Washington, where health officials are concerned about an outbreak growing.
Symptoms of coronavirus include fever, coughing and shortness of breath, similar to influenza. Not everyone needs to be tested, state officials said. Doctors conducting a coronavirus test can take an oral swab, a nasal swab and collect saliva from a person potentially infected with the illness, said Shamarial Roberson, the state’s deputy secretary for health.
“The flu is a virus we’ve known and studied for a long time. There is treatment, like Tamiflu and a preventative vaccine. We don’t know enough about the coronavirus yet, which is why we’re taking this so seriously,” said Dr. Nishant Anand, the chief medical officer of the BayCare health system.
Hospital operators discussed the next steps Monday at a closed roundtable event with DeSantis. They talked about the possible shortage of medical supplies, but no local hospital is experiencing that yet. Nor are any local hospitals seeing a dramatic influx of patient volume yet, outside of the expected uptick due to the busy annual flu season.
John Couris, CEO of Tampa General Hospital, created an informal task force with leaders at BayCare and HCA hospitals. He said they spoke after the roundtable event and will meet every few days to share information and resources.
“Residents should know that if they are experiencing symptoms like the flu they can be treated at any hospital in the area, but the first thing they should do is call the health department,” he said.
Couris said the hospital staff is well-trained to handle a mass infectious disease event like this. Tampa General is beefing up its telemedicine operations, too, to treat and see patients without having to handle them at emergency rooms or urgent care centers.
Other organizations across Tampa Bay also were preparing for a potential outbreak. The Hillsborough County School District began installing hand sanitizer dispensers and delivering cartons of Purell to its more than 235 schools Monday. Purell dispensers also are being installed on each of the district’s roughly 1,000 school buses.
A sign on the door of a South Tampa Immediate Care clinic warned prospective visitors: “Stop" and "DO NOT ENTER” if they had traveled to China, Iran, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong or parts of Washington, Arizona, Oregon, California and Wisconsin. The sign instructed people to call the local health department instead.
Masks and bottles of hand sanitizer were flying off the shelves at local retailers, from Sam’s Club to CVS.
State universities began to close some of their study abroad programs in an abundance of caution. Walt Disney World officials told some employees who recently traveled to Italy to stay home, while cruise lines implemented new rules which include prohibiting any passengers who have traveled within the last 14 days to China, South Korea or Iran.
DeSantis said residents who are older or have existing health problems like heart disease or obesity are higher risk for severe symptoms. State officials said they are working with assisted living facilities, universities and schools to spread awareness and guidelines for managing coronavirus.
The current cases under investigation in Florida may include people who have traveled to China, Iran, Italy, Japan and South Korea, or who come down with lower respiratory tract infections like pneumonia. Florida health leaders have asked people who return from those countries to self-isolate for 14 days. If someone becomes ill during that time, they said, they should contact their county health department to arrange safe transport to a hospital. This is a new precaution, doctors said, to try to contain the spread of the virus.
Younger people who contract the coronavirus tend to fare better than those who are older and have pre-existing health problems, according to the governor.
Staff writers Marlene Sokol, Divya Kumar, Kirby Wilson, Sharon Kennedy Wynne and Megan Reeves contributed to this report.
What you need to know about the coronavirus:
The Florida Department of Health has launched a call center for coronavirus surveillance. If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms or has questions related to the illness, known technically as COVID-19, call 1-(866) 779-6121 or email: COVIDemail@example.com. The center is available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Symptoms: Fever, cough and shortness of breath.
People at higher risk: Health care workers, laboratory workers, people who have traveled from China, Italy, South Korea and Japan.
Prevention: Wash hands, clean surfaces in the home and workplace, stay hydrated, eat a balanced diet and get adequate sleep.
Why there so many deaths: Fatalities are affecting mostly older people with compromised immune systems. A severe case of coronavirus can lead to pneumonia. Complications from pneumonia are the most common cause of death.