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Hillsborough County health officials have tested 11 people for coronavirus so far, and are monitoring at least one passenger who flew on a plane through Tampa International Airport with a woman who tested positive for the virus.
The tests were part of an effort to “break the chain” of infection and limit the virus’ spread, Dr. Douglas Holt, director of the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County, told county commissioners Wednesday. He also said the coronavirus threat in the Tampa Bay area is still low, despite the discovery of two cases this week.
The health department said two women are in isolation at home, one in her 20s who traveled last week from Italy, where there is an outbreak. A second woman also tested positive in a state test, which has not yet been confirmed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She is self-isolating in Hillsborough County, and state officials said she traveled with the first patient.
Local health officials also have quarantined six of the women’s “close contacts," or those who could have been exposed, Holt told commissioners. They are restricted to their homes and are being monitored daily by health officials.
In addition to the close contacts and the 11 people tested, another 11 lower-risk individuals have been identified by the department, Holt said. He described them as people who had been “in the vicinity,” and said they have been instructed to "go about their business, but if they have any sniffles or anything else, they will notify us.”
Holt said health officials are preparing for the next phase of the outbreak — county-wide transmission.
“That’s what Seattle is facing right now,” he said, referring to Washington state, where 10 people have died from the virus.
A Florida resident in Washington has tested positive for coronavirus, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Wednesday.
“We will be prepared as a community to manage it," Holt said. “As always, we are hoping for the best but are certainly prepared for the worst.”
He described the first Hillsborough woman as cooperative. On Sunday, the department contacted people who could have been exposed to coronavirus based what they learned from interviewing the woman, which includes health care workers and anyone she was close to in her own home. Those are the people now under quarantine.
Health officials reviewed where the woman sat on the airplane to Tampa and considered the people in the same row or up to two rows in front or behind her as at a “risk for potential exposure.” Those passengers were contacted by the CDC, Holt said.
At least one person on the plane is in contact with health officials checking for possible symptoms.
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Additionally, the woman’s roommate in Hillsborough County, and her travel companion to Italy are being monitored. The companion has tested positive as well. Holt added that four health care workers and one other person are being monitored.
He told commissioners that no nursing homes or public spaces within the county were of “particular concern.”
Referring to the Hillsborough woman, he said, “She’s really the unsung hero. She has done everything to protect the public.”
She and the other woman were allowed to stay in their home or homes because they did not live with any seniors or children. If they did, they wouldn’t be allowed to stay there, Holt said.
The health department has monitored 37 people who Holt called “returning travelers,” or people who could have been exposed to the virus while in at-risk areas, which include China, Italy, South Korea, Japan and Iran. Seven of those people are actively being monitored. It was unclear Wednesday whether the two women with positive tests are included in that number.
Of the 11 coronavirus tests in Hillsborough, five have come back negative and four are pending. Two cases were positive. Across Florida, the state is monitoring 247 people. There are still 16 tests statewide with pending results.
Late Wednesday, the health department updated its coronavirus website, adding a new category, “Florida Cases Repatriated and Isolated Out of State Until Healthy,” to its tally. It did not explain the term, but said there were five such cases.
“The testing is a big challenge here as our supply has not met the demand,” Holt said. “I hope to see academic and private labs develop tests promptly.”
He continued: “This could have happened in any county.
"We are sharing our experiences with other counties so if they face the same thing, they will learn from us.”
When the Tampa Bay Times reached out to Pinellas, Pasco and Manatee counties for more information about testing results, local government officials directed reporters to the county health departments. Those inquiries were directed back to the Florida Department of Health office in Tallahassee, which went unanswered.
South of Tampa Bay, Doctors Hospital of Sarasota gave a more detailed timeline on another coronavirus case involving a Manatee County man in his 60s. In a statement, CEO Robert Meade said the man was tested after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded its criteria for coronavirus testing to include people with respiratory infections but no known diagnoses of illnesses like influenza.
A presumptive positive test came back from a state laboratory Saturday evening, Meade said. The hospital immediately told people who might have come into contact with the man, according to the statement, and alerted patients and staff that the hospital might have a patient with COVID-19, the technical name for the disease.
Wednesday, the hospital said, the emergency room was open and hospital workers were continually cleaning surfaces with disinfectant.
Marc Yacht, a former health director of Pasco County who retired in 2007, said much remains unknown about how coronavirus could spread in the United States, but people should not panic.
“We’re going to see a peak in this thing eventually and then it will decrease,” he said, adding that some people might contract the virus without ever knowing because they will have only minor symptoms. “Hopefully it will be a short curve.”
In Florida, he said, public health officials seem to be aggressively isolating patients who might have the disease.
“The governor is really mobilizing very rapidly his resources to address a coming epidemic,” Yacht said. “We don’t really know yet how serious it’s going to get.”
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