The response to coronavirus got real this week.
Events from golf and basketball tournaments to St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and other social gatherings have been canceled. Some schools and theme parks are closing. Grocery stores have seen a rush of people stocking up in ways reminiscent of hurricane season.
And confirmed cases continue to crop up in the Tampa Bay area, Florida and worldwide. Early Saturday, state officials announced 25 new COVID-19 patients — the most announced at one time since the pandemic started. There are now more than 70 confirmed cases in Florida and rising.
Though state officials say the threat to the public remains low, public interest in learning about the disease — how it works, who is most at risk — grows higher.
You can also stay up to date with our new 10-minute podcast, Coronavirus in Florida. We’ll talk to experts and reporters, share the facts behind the spread of the virus and discuss what could happen next.
The latest on cases
Q: Have the number of coronavirus cases been increasing in Florida?
A: Yes. There are now more than 70 cases. There have also been four deaths. The latest is a 68-year-old Orlando area woman who visited South Korea, then fell ill in California. She died before returning to Florida. The other is a 77-year-old resident of Lee County whose death was announced Saturday. Our latest on all the positive tests can be found here and here is a map and other details about all the cases.
The total number of people in Florida who have tested positive and negative for the disease can also be found on the Florida Department of Health website.
Q: What is the latest in the Tampa Bay area?
A: Six people in the Tampa Bay area have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, including a 49-year-old Hillsborough woman whose positive test was announced late Thursday night.
There are two cases in Pinellas County, three in Hillsborough County and one in Pasco County.
Q: Do we know the identities of any of the local people who have tested positive?
A: We know one. The man who tested positive in Pasco County announced it on his business Facebook page, then talked to the Times. That story can be found here.
Q: Has the Times spoken to anyone who has traveled from high-risk areas back to this area?
A: Yes. We spoke to a nurse who was quarantined, then made his way to Spain, London and eventually Tampa. His assessment: “The farther west I went, the less and less concerned people seemed to be.” Read his full story here.
Changes, closures and cancellations
Q: There’s a presidential primary election on Tuesday in Florida. What’s the latest?
A: The outbreak of the coronavirus is forcing Pinellas and Hillsborough counties to move additional polling places for Tuesday’s presidential preference primary election. Read our full report here.
Q: What about the Firestone Grand Prix St. Petersburg? Still going on as scheduled?
A: The race was canceled late Friday morning. Earlier plans were to run the race without spectators but now it’s off altogether. Full story here.
Q: What about WrestleMania?
A: WrestleMania 36, scheduled for April 5 at Raymond James Stadium, is still on for now ... but stay tuned. A county emergency policy team hasn’t made a final decision.
Q: Has this affected other sporting events?
A: It sure has. PGA announced Friday it would postpone the Masters Tournament. The Valspar Championship is canceled. MLB on Thursday suspended spring training and pushed Opening Day back two weeks. The NHL and NBA seasons have been suspended indefinitely. The Tampa Bay Rowdies’ season has been halted and MLS also is shutting down for 30 days. The American Athletic Conference, in which USF plays, announced late Thursday morning it has canceled its men’s basketball tournament in Fort Worth, Texas. The Tampa Bay Bucs also discontinued travel for scouts, coaches and staff due to coronavirus.
Here’s a full run down of what’s happened.
Q: What about theme parks like Disney and Busch Gardens?
A: Florida’s theme parks (Walt Disney World, Universal, Busch Gardens, SeaWorld, Adventure Island and Legoland) said they will close for two weeks starting Monday. Full story here.
Disney’s resorts and Disney Springs will remain open, according to an announcement on the company website.
Q: What about the courts? Do people still have to go to jury duty?
A: The Florida Supreme Court ordered that all face-to-face legal proceedings across the state cease for the next two weeks. Read the full story here.
Q: What’s going on with religious services?
A: The Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg issued a dispensation for mass services. The Times has also heard of several Tampa Bay area churches that have canceled live gatherings and are moving to video streaming. For example, Hyde Park United Methodist in Tampa has suspended all worship services and gatherings but will stream their 9:30 and 11 a.m. Sunday services on Facebook. The church’s ministry feeding the homeless will continue in the church parking lot on Azeele Street. That starts at 7:15 a.m. Sunday.
Check with your religious institution before heading to regularly scheduled services.
Q: What about conventions that were scheduled in Tampa? Are they being canceled?
A: It’s under consideration, especially with the fact that someone who attended a conference of emergency medical personnel in Tampa last week fell ill with the disease.
Q: Is there any chance other area events may be canceled?
A: Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday urged cities and counties in Florida to postpone or cancel any mass gatherings over the next 30 days in an effort to limit the spread of coronavirus. Here’s our full story on what he said here.
Citing concerns over the coronavirus, organizers have canceled the 2020 Tampa Bay AirFest scheduled for the weekend of March 28-29. Tampa’s River O’ Green and St. Patrick’s Day parade also has been postponed.
The city of St. Petersburg and city of Tampa governments said they are both closely monitoring the virus.
Performance venues, like the Straz and Ruth Eckerd Hall, have canceled all events.
St. Petersburg’s Museum of Fine Arts has temporarily closed and the the 23rd Annual Art in Bloom and related events set for March 2630 have been canceled.
Meanwhile, officials in Austin, Texas, have canceled the South by Southwest festival, where some Tampa Bay artists had been scheduled to appear.
Our ongoing full list of cancellations is here.
And this story does a great job summing up just what kind of a day it was on Thursday when so much was canceled.
Q: Is anything still going on?
A: Yes. Here’s a list of events still happening the this weekend.
What about Publix?
A: The Lakeland company said its supermarkets will close early at 8 p.m. starting Saturday. The company said it needs time to stock shelves and sanitize stores.
Q: Is traffic at Tampa International Airport being affected?
A: Yes. The airport says that spring break traffic is down and they don’t expect to break records as they have over the last several years.
Q: Is airline travel particularly unsafe?
A: While the disease certainly spreads during travel, planes may not be the sick factories we think. In fact, only those seated close to an infected person are at even medium risk. Read our full story about this here.
Q: What about going on cruises?
A: Major cruises have been delayed coming into port because of positive or pending coronavirus cases on board. On Sunday, the State Department issued a warning against traveling by cruise ship. The CDC said risk of infection is higher on a cruise because of the close quarters. The Regal Princess cruise ship finally pulled into a Florida port and passengers began disembarking after two crew members tested negative for coronavirus.
Q: I heard someone with COVID-19 came through Tampa International Airport. What do we know?
A: A spokeswoman for the airport announced March 2 that a woman in her 20s who had traveled to northern Italy and was later diagnosed with COVID-19 flew through the airport.
A woman who was on that flight tells the Tampa Bay Times that the response she has seen from her health department has been ‘unacceptable.’
Q: Have any Tampa Bay area schools closed?
A: All schools in Florida will close for a week in addition to regularly scheduled spring breaks. For Tampa Bay area schools, that means students will be off for spring break the week of March 16, then another week off starting March 23. Full story here.
Q: What else should I know about spring break?
Tampa Bay schools are asking students and parents to inform the district about certain travel plans and other conditions before returning to school after spring break. Full story here.
Q: How are colleges reacting?
Florida higher education leaders on Wednesday directed all state universities to move classes online as soon as possible.
Schools should offer remote, online teaching while keeping campuses open and operations regular for students who don’t have the option to relocate, The Board of Governors for the State University System said.
Eckerd College, a private school in Pinellas County, also will close dorms and extend spring break through March 29, then will move classes online. Nova Southeastern University is suspending classes until March 23 then will move online.
Senior care and nursing homes
Q: Who is most at risk?
A: Dr. Sally Alrabaa, an infectious disease specialist with the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, said unlike other outbreaks, coronavirus seems to be most severe for the elderly and people with health issues. There have not been many reports of severe issues in children and healthy adults.
Q: What is being done to protect senior citizens?
A: If COVID-19 spreads, the elderly are most at risk to suffer the most severe symptoms, including death — and no state has a higher share of residents in their 70s, 80s or older than Florida.
CDC recommendations for senior citizens remain the same as for the rest of the population. The World Health Organization recommends people over 60 avoid crowded areas.
Nursing homes and other elder care facilities are of particular concern. The CDC has a pandemic planning checklist for long-term care and residential health facilities.
Tampa Meals on Wheels is preparing multi-day food packs in case one of the people they deliver to has to self-isolate for 14 days.
Q: I’ve heard reports of some nursing homes not allowing visits. Is that happening?
A: Facilities are expected to take visitors’ temperatures and ask questions about their contacts and travels. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has issued an executive order preventing large groups of people from visiting nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and similar sites in Florida in an effort to stop the spread of novel coronavirus among some of the state’s most vulnerable people.
Anyone who’s traveled internationally, sailed on a cruise ship, exhibits symptoms of coronavirus or has been in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus is temporarily prohibited from visiting those sites, he said.
The Times spoke with some family members of people in nursing homes, who said they are worried but understand the restrictions. Full story here.
The Times’ Leonora LaPeter Anton also wrote about her own experience with these restrictions at her father’s memory care facility. Read her heartbreaking account here.
Q: Will getting the pneumonia vaccine help seniors handle coronavirus any better?
A: Dr. Seetha Lakshmi, an infectious disease physician at Tampa General Hospital, said it could. “I encourage all my patients to make sure they are updated on vaccinations, including the annual flu shot and the pneumonia vaccine.”
Other vulnerable groups
Q: Are first-responders like firefighters and paramedics taking precautions?
A: Yes, they are. In fact, residents shouldn’t be alarmed if they see first-responders wearing gloves, gowns and masks. They’re just taking the proper precautions. Here’s our full story on this here.
Q: Are doctors or nurses getting sick?
A: About 80 nurses across the country have been quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure and a local nurse with more than 30 years of experience tells us: “This is the most serious thing I’ve been through personally."
Q: There are a lot of veterans in the Tampa Bay area and Florida. Are there special services for veterans who think they may have coronavirus?
A: Yes. Veterans health officials are encouraging veterans who believe they’ve come down with the coronavirus to call a toll-free number for a preliminary diagnosis and to prepare for a trip to a medical center or clinic. The number is 1-877-741-3400. More information here.
Q: Are Florida prisons still allowing visits?
No. Inmates will no longer be able to receive visitors in Florida’s prisons, the Department of Corrections announced Wednesday night. Full story here.
Q: Are all the updates being communicated with Floridians who don’t speak English?
A: Though government agencies broadly recognize the need to translate their messages into Spanish, Health Department offices were struggling to adapt this philosophy to the growing health concern. Read our full story about this here.
Q: What about hourly or contract workers?
Many companies with workers who don’t usually get sick time — like Uber and Instacart — are re-evaluating their sick leave policies, though challenges remain.
Pets and animals
Q. Can pets get coronavirus?
The virus is thought to have originated from an animal source, but according to the World Health Organization, there is no evidence that pets such as cats and dogs have been infected or could spread the coronavirus.
However, since animals can spread diseases to people, CDC recommends washing hands after being around animals.
Understanding the virus
Q: What are the symptoms?
A: Common symptoms are fever, cough and shortness of breath. These symptoms may appear from two to 14 days after exposure to the virus.
Symptoms have ranged from mild to severe, but health officials recommend you call a doctor if you develop symptoms and have been to a country where coronavirus has been widespread, like Italy or China.
In severe cases, mainly with older patients, coronavirus can lead to pneumonia.
Also, keep in mind we’re in peak allergy season. Experts said allergies can be distinguished from something more serious, because allergies don’t come with fever.
Q: How does it compare to the standard flu?
A: Both have about the same level of infection, Alrabaa said, meaning if you meet someone with the flu and someone with coronavirus you have about the same odds of getting infected. She said influenza is more deadly but that coronavirus has a more severe effect on older people.
Q: Can I use antibiotics to treat or prevent coronavirus?
A: No. Antibiotics are not effective for a virus.
Q: Can the virus be passed through water sources?
A: No. The CDC says the virus spreads from person to person in close contact, within about six feet. Alrabaa said it can’t spread through water systems in buildings or cities, and instead passes through respiratory droplets from someone or from droplets they leave on a surface.
According to the CDC, “the COVID-19 virus has not been detected in drinking water. Conventional water treatment methods that use filtration and disinfection, such as those in most municipal drinking water systems, should remove or inactivate the virus that causes COVID-19.”
Tampa Bay Water — the water provider for Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, St. Petersburg, Tampa and New Port Richey utility customers — issued a news release saying tap water remains safe to drink. Customers with questions can call 866-463-6420.
Q: Should I wear a mask?
A: Probably not. The World Health Organization recommends only people with coronavirus or those caring for them wear masks. Masks are only effective if worn properly and in combination with proper hand washing. If needed, the WHO has a guide on how to properly put on and remove masks.
The U.S. Surgeon General also sent out a Tweet telling people to stop buying masks because they’re not effective for the general public and could make it harder for health officials to access supplies they need.
However, that didn’t stop a Tampa strip club from offering 10,000 masks to customers.
Q: How does the virus spread? Can it live on an object shipped from China?
A: The disease spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets. It can also be picked up on surfaces, but the CDC said that doesn’t seem to be the primary way it spreads.
The CDC said there is little risk of objects being shipped from China carrying coronavirus because the virus has a poor chance of surviving on a surface shipped over the course of several days or weeks at an ambient temperature. There are no cases in the U.S. associated with imported goods.
Q: Is there any chance the spread of the virus will slow soon?
A: Alrabaa said there will likely be more cases before things slow down. DeSantis also said there will likely be more positive cases in Florida. The CDC said it’s unknown whether the spread of the disease will change when the weather gets warmer.
Q: Can the coronavirus’s spread be stopped?
The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a “pandemic” on Wednesday.
But that doesn’t mean that measures like social distancing, vigilant hand-washing and in some cases, self-isolating, can’t make a difference.
"All countries can still change the course of this pandemic” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who heads the U.N. agency. “If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilize their people in the response.”
Q: I’ve been hearing the term ‘community spread’ ... what the heck is that?
A: "Community spread means people have been infected with the virus in an area, including some who are not sure how or where they became infected,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There has been some dispute about whether community spread has occurred in Florida. Listen to our podcast about community spread, and for a full glossary of other coronavirus terms, go here.
Q: Is Florida more vulnerable to coronavirus than other states?
A: Yes. Experts believe it is, citing the state’s large number of seniors and those who are uninsured. Our full story on this topic is here.
Q: Will the warming springtime temperatures in Florida affect how the disease spreads?
A: Experts hope warming temperatures — and we’re expecting the 80s starting this week — could slow the spread, as viruses like these typically spread more in cold weather, when people gather more indoors and heating systems dry out our systems.
But experts also warn that so little is known about the virus, there’s not enough evidence to expect the spread to weaken. So don’t count on returning fully to normal by summer. Full story here.
Understanding the response
Q: How does testing work? What should I do if I think I need to be tested?
A: The Florida Department of Health can now test for coronavirus in Tampa, Jacksonville and Miami within 48 hours. CDC testing takes up to five days, according to DeSantis.
Health officials advise to call ahead to a doctor or health department if you suspect you have coronavirus so they can prepare for your arrival and limit the risk of infecting others.
You can also visit the doctor virtually. Many hospital systems have the option, which lets doctors give you advice and can keep people out of the ER if it’s not needed.
To contact the health department directly, call 866-779-6121 or email COVIDemail@example.com.
“We’re not recommending the average citizen if they start coughing to show up in the emergency room," DeSantis said.
Q. What is the latest with testing?
State labs in Miami, Jacksonville and Tampa have run nearly 400 tests, with more than 150 of those still awaiting results. Read more about the process here.
Q: How much will it cost me if I get tested?
A: As of now, if you’re seen at an emergency room or urgent care center, you would likely pay what you ordinarily would based on your insurance plan or lack thereof. It is not immediately clear if the amount would be different at a Department of Health office.
Q: How ready is Florida’s health department for the coronavirus?
Even before the coronavirus outbreak in Florida, the state health department said it needed more resources to handle emerging infectious disease threats. The Department of Health is straining to keep up after years of staff cuts.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and lawmakers appear poised to boost the state’s response to the virus outbreak with $25 million in state funding, but experts say that won’t make up for years of underfunding that have eroded the agency’s readiness.
Q: Are local hospitals preparing?
A: Yes. “We’re in a much better status than some of these countries to take care of ill patients,” Alrabaa said. She said all hospitals in the community have a task force and have dealt with respiratory issues from a virus before. BayCare Health Systems announced Friday it will be screening visitors to its health centers for coronavirus.
Q: The Tampa Bay Times has a pay gateway, so I can only read a limited number of articles about this public health crisis, right?
A: All our stories about coronavirus are not behind our pay gateway, so you can access all of them for free. The Times does this in times of crisis or emergency, including hurricanes. If you’re valuing all our coverage and would like to subscribe, you can do so here.
Q: I heard Florida Sen. Rick Scott has gone into quarantine?
A: Yes. Scott announced Thursday he will self-quarantine after having possible contact with Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s press secretary Fabio Wajngarten during a meeting in Florida this week.
Q: I heard something about Florida requiring people who have flown internationally to go into quarantine or isolation. Is that true?
A: No. The state Department of Health put out an advisory declaring that earlier Monday, but pulled that recommendation back after several hours. Currently, only people who have traveled to China, Italy, Iran and South Korea should self-isolate.
Q: I’m hearing a lot of rumors ... how do I know what’s true?
A: As with any emerging news, wild claims and misinformation can spread fear and confusion. False posts online have already distorted symptoms of the virus and peddled miracle cures. We’ve debunked a few myths.
Stay informed by following trusted news sources. Members of the public are urged to follow the advice of established institutions like WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and to beware of claims suggesting ways to prevent the virus.
Economic and business impact
Q: Have the markets been effected?
A: Yes, they have. In fact, Thursday was the worst day on Wall Street since 1987 as virus fears spread.
Q: How should workplaces prepare for the virus?
A: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends companies keep a flexible sick leave policy and encourage employees to stay home even for minor respiratory illness or a slight fever.
For businesses that rely on temporary or contract employees without sick time, the CDC says to develop “non-punitive leave policies.” If an employee shows up coughing or sneezing, separate them from their coworkers and send them home sick or to work remotely.
Employers should also remind staff of hygiene etiquette, ensure the workplace is sanitized regularly and provide wipes or cleaning supplies, keep track of employees who are traveling and prepare an infectious disease outbreak response plan.
If public officials move to recommend people maintain a physical distance from each other, plan how your business will respond. Will it stagger shifts to decrease people’s contact with one another or offer flexible work hours and telecommuting options?
Q: Are there any Tampa Bay businesses struggling?
A: We talked to one business owner whose plight has become “a case study in the ways that the mushrooming coronavirus pandemic is creating havoc and doubt for many small businesses that rely on imports.” Our full story is here.
Q: Are people staying at home and using delivery services more?
A: Yes. Rather than go to the grocery store, some people are increasingly outsourcing the task to delivery drivers who are managing a surge of large orders. Full story here.
Q: How can I protect myself?
A: Avoid touching your face, cover sneezes and coughs with a tissue, and wash hands frequently for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water aren’t around, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.
Clean items you frequently touch often and thoroughly. These include your phone, phone case, counter tops, door knobs and keyboards. Use a cleaning spray or wipe. Also wash dishes thoroughly and avoid sharing them with others.
Q: Should I stop shaking hands with people?
A: Yes. Try a bow or an elbow-bump as a greeting instead. Experts say keeping some distance in social interactions can help prevent the spread of the virus.
As we found out in this story, churches and local law groups are encouraging people to avoid shaking hands during gatherings.
Q: Does using public transportation, going to events with large crowds or traveling put me at risk?
A: Alrabaa said avoiding crowded places reduces the risk of catching any illness. Frequent hand washing and good hygiene reduce that risk.
“The reality is anything people touch has some sort of a germ on it,” she said.
Q: I guess I should stock up in case the virus spreads further. What belongs in a quarantine home kit?
A: You don’t need to raid the grocery store, but experts recommend keeping a two-week supply of non-perishable food for everyone in your home in case you need to self-isolate, so that you can avoid going out. That could include rice, pasta, beans, oats, canned foods, snacks and bottled water.
Here’s our in-depth shopping list.
Keep cleaning supplies in stock, like laundry detergent, antibacterial soap, and hand sanitizer with at least 60-percent alcohol contact. Don’t forget hygiene items like diapers, toilet paper and feminine care products.
Make sure you have at least a 30-day supply of prescription medication and keep electronic records of health records from doctors and hospitals. Make a list of emergency contacts.
Q: I heard Publix is limiting the number of some items that people can buy. Is that true?
A: Yes, it is. Publix is limiting customers to only two of some items, including soap, hand sanitizer, wipes and other items. Full story here.
Reasons for hope
Q: Is there any good news?
A: There is. Amid all the fears, quarantines and stockpiling of food, it has been easy to ignore the fact that more than 60,000 people have recovered from the coronavirus spreading around the globe. Full story here. And coronavirus has resulted in gas prices plunging below $2 a gallon in some places around the Tampa Bay area.
Q: I’m feeling mentally and emotionally exhausted. What can I do?
The Times has made a handy guide to help get you through this chaotic time. From concerns about the unrelenting news cycle to missing loved ones to going stir crazy, we’ve got you covered.
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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide
EVENT CANCELLATIONS: Get the latest updates on events planned in the Tampa Bay area in the coming weeks.
STOCK UP YOUR PANTRY: Foods that should always be in your kitchen, for emergencies and everyday life.
OTHER CORONAVIRUS WEBSITES:
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