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Hillsborough coronavirus patient flew through Tampa International Airport, spokeswoman says

There are protocols for retracing the infected woman’s steps and finding her fellow passengers. But state health officials aren’t answering questions about the flight or the airport.
People sit near the tram to Airside E in the main terminal at Tampa International Airport on Monday.
People sit near the tram to Airside E in the main terminal at Tampa International Airport on Monday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Mar. 3, 2020
Updated Mar. 3, 2020

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TAMPA ⁠— The woman in Hillsborough County who contracted coronavirus flew through Tampa International Airport, spokeswoman Emily Nipps told the Tampa Bay Times late Monday. The woman, in her 20s, had traveled to northern Italy, where there is now an outbreak, state officials said.

It’s unclear how many people she may have come into contact with or how health officials are tracing her steps. Nipps did not say when the woman flew through the airport, only that “she arrived on a return flight.”

Related: Third coronavirus case found in Florida is Hillsborough patient’s sister

However, there are routine protocols followed in such cases: Health officials and epidemiologists track down all people potentially at risk of catching the virus, which in this case would include fellow airplane passengers and those who frequented the same areas of the airport as the woman.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Florida Department of Health generally do not address the specifics of individual cases unless there is a clear threat to public health and safety, said Jay Wolfson, a professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health and an expert on health care policy.

“People have contagious colds, influenzas and even things like conjunctivitis, which can be highly contagious, and they ride planes, go shopping and can pose a risk to others,” he said in an email to the Times. “Asymptomatic persons would not easily be identified if they did not have a fever without more invasive testing.”

Related: CDC confirms Florida’s first two cases of coronavirus; more are expected

It’s unclear if the Hillsborough woman was showing symptoms or feeling ill while she was traveling, or if the disease appeared after her return.

“Unless and until it becomes necessary to implement more aggressive testing, public education, non-intrusive assessments and the common and personal decency of self-reporting are what we’ve got,” Wolfson said.

Nipps referred questions about the woman — including when she flew, on what flight, through which gate, whether fellow passengers have been notified and what guidance state and federal regulators have offered the airport — to the Florida Department of Health and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

State health officials and the CDC did not respond to a request for comment, or questions about this particular case.

Helen Aguirre Ferré, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ron DeSantis, declined to answer questions and referred a reporter to the federal government.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says someone could come down with the disease if they touch a surface with the virus and then touch their mouth, nose or possibly eyes, “but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” Coronavirus spreads mostly through respiratory droplets in the air when someone sneezes or coughs.

Asked about how many people the woman may have exposed while sick, state Surgeon General Scott Rivkees said early Monday: “I don’t have information at the present time. We are working with CDC and the Health Department on evaluating all of those issues.”

Another man in his 60s in Manatee County was also diagnosed with coronavirus, but he has not traveled to any countries where there are major outbreaks of the illness, state officials said Monday. They are not sure how he came in contact with the disease.

Nipps said the airport has “received no information that indicates the Manatee patient came through TPA.”

The Washington Post reported Monday that airline companies and the government have clashed over who should retain passenger data to help track how many passengers might have been exposed on flights where someone is found to have coronavirus.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, who sits on the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board and helps oversee the airport, said board members have not been briefed about the coronavirus case.

“We have not had any conversations about the airport and the woman coming from Italy,” he said Monday night. “I’m positive that the airport is taking all the right measures — every agency in this county is doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing.”

Miller added that nothing about the virus was included on the agenda for the board’s upcoming meeting Thursday morning, but it is still possible that staff will brief the board then.

In a separate statement, officials at the Tampa airport said staffers are cleaning “high-touch areas” and offering more hand sanitizer as precautions against the virus.

Nipps said the airport’s “cleaning staff is sanitizing handrails, elevator buttons, shuttle interiors ... employee areas such as break rooms, restrooms, etc.” every shift. Employees are also frequently checking to make sure soap dispensers are full.

“At this time, the Florida Department of Health has deemed those visiting or working at TPA to be at a low risk of contracting, carrying or spreading the coronavirus,” the airport statement said. “Additionally, we have been advised by the TSA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection that there have been no changes to their screening procedures at this time.”

Times staff writers Emily Mahoney and Richard Danielson contributed to this report.

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 (866) 779-6121 or email: COVID-19@flhealth.gov. The center is available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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