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Two days passed from when Florida officials received the state’s first positive coronavirus tests until Julia Nemeth-Harn said she was contacted by a county health worker with surprising news.
She had been on a flight with a passenger who had the disease. Now Nemeth-Harn was at risk.
The worker on Tuesday morning told Nemeth-Harn to isolate herself at home and to expect an email that day with forms and further instructions.
The email did not come.
Nemeth-Harn would spend the next few days lost and overwhelmed, trying to find information in an opaque health care system battling the world’s largest public health crisis.
That evening, she said, she wrote to the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County and got a reply with two sheets: a log for taking her temperature twice a day and a partially completed “voluntary agreement for monitoring” that included incorrect information stating she had visited Italy, the site of an outbreak. Nemeth-Harn, 55, of Nokomis, had traveled to Maine to ski, flying back Feb. 26 through John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York at 8 a.m. on Delta flight 2794 to Tampa International Airport.
Nemeth-Harn said she called back her local health department and emailed the nurse to get clarification but received no response. She did not turn in the forms. She wrote to a general email address for the state coronavirus call center. The reply came: “You should contact your healthcare professional and local county health department. They are better equipped to answer your specific health related questions. No state employee will be able to give you the specific flight information.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis had declared a public health emergency. Nemeth-Harn wondered why she could not get answers.
“If this information was known on Saturday, the governor sat on it until Sunday and then health departments didn’t call people until Tuesday, that’s unacceptable,” she said in an interview Thursday. “We’re not getting the right information.”
As a global epidemic blooms, stoking fears of a wider spread in the United States, Nemeth-Harn’s experience reveals gaps in Florida’s attempt to isolate and contain the coronavirus, known technically as COVID-19.
The risk here remains low, health officials say.
DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Ferré said “COVID-19 is a virus that is challenging the world, and here in Florida, our governor is committed to doing everything necessary to protect the health and well-being of Florida residents.”
She said investigations into the first cases began Saturday with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC did not confirm the cases until Monday, but DeSantis decided to announce the positive tests Sunday anyway.
Ferré described a process for notifying people that involves federal, state and local agencies. The CDC is responsible for finding people on planes who might have been exposed, she said. The CDC then tells state officials, who then notify the county health departments, who then notify the potential patient.
Nemeth-Harn said a friend who was on the same flight but lives in Pinellas County was told by her local health department she did not need to self-quarantine. That friend continued with her life, Nemeth-Harn said, as she and her 70-year-old husband stayed inside.
“Two people sitting next to each other on the same flight got 180-degree different information,” Nemeth-Harn said.
The Pinellas health department didn’t respond to a request for comment.
After she returned to Florida, and days before the governor’s announcement of the first cases, Nemeth-Harn said, she visited her 82-year-old mother, who is healthy and lives at home with a boyfriend. Nemeth-Harn had dinner with friends last Friday, one of whom she said was scheduled for surgery this week, possibly for a cardiac procedure.
“I’ve been to the gym, I’ve been to yoga, I’ve been to work,” she said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ultimately announced Florida’s first two cases were confirmed Monday — a Manatee County man in his 60s and a woman in Hillsborough County, in her 20s, who flew through Tampa International Airport.
Nemeth-Harn said she was aware of the disease but not concerned about her travel. At that time, she said, no one in Florida had been diagnosed. She thinks a few people on the plane might have been wearing masks, but she does not remember anyone around her coughing or sneezing.
Tampa International Airport, state health workers and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have so far declined to identify what flight the woman was on. On Wednesday, Dr. Douglas Holt, Hillsborough County’s health director, said officials considered people who sat within two rows of the woman as “at risk for potential exposure.”
A Delta spokesperson said the company is “aware that a customer who recently traveled from New York City to Tampa is being treated for COVID-19.”
Coronavirus, with symptoms similar to the flu, is thought to spread primarily through person-to-person contact. Patients with severe symptoms tend to be older and can develop bad respiratory infections.
Nemeth-Harn said she has not felt ill. Neither has her husband.
They run a water treatment business, she said, and she was working Tuesday morning when she got the call about her exposure. She sent a memo to their roughly 30 employees, about 10 of whom she had seen in recent days. They have cancelled meetings to be safe, and she said their friend postponed surgery by a week because of the exposure threat, following his doctor’s advice.
In an email Wednesday to a nurse at the Sarasota health department, Nemeth-Harn wrote: “Being told to self-quarantine with no reliable justification is extremely disruptive to my work, family, existing doctor’s appointments.” The day before she had asked for clarification about the plane that carried the patient.
“I don’t need to know the person’s name, but I do need to know if they are actually looking at the right flight,” she told the Tampa Bay Times. “My husband doesn’t think we should go back to work until Monday, just to give the employees a higher level of comfort.”
She addressed a longer email to the state and county health departments Thursday:
“It is outrageous that if I was truly in contact with a person infected by the coronavirus I am unable to get an email or phone call with accurate information and answers to my questions about the flight number and seat number of the infected person.”
Thursday afternoon, after the Times asked for clarity from the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County, Nemeth-Harn said she was contacted by a nurse with more details.
The nurse confirmed the flight number, she said, and apologized, saying the health department had only two nurses to handle all of the local cases. Nemeth-Harn said she was told to say in self-isolation.
A spokesman from the local department, G. Steve Huard, soon replied to the Times saying he could not comment on specific cases, but he offered a broad outline of what the health workers would do in such a case.
Huard said state and federal health officials would notify the Sarasota branch of the case. The person would be labeled either medium- or low-risk depending on whether they had been within 6 feet of the patient with coronavirus on the plane.
“Medium-risk travelers would be asked to self-quarantine at home for 14 days, from the date of exposure,” Huard said. “They would be provided with an information sheet and temperature log. In addition, they would be contacted every third day to discuss temperature and any changes in health (new symptoms).”
A low-risk traveler, he said, would be asked to monitor their temperature but not self-quarantine.
Huard also said the health department has five nurses and administrative staff working with potential COVID-19 patients, which includes two nurses trained in epidemiology, the study of disease detection and prevention.
Nemeth-Harn shared a form with the Times for a medium-risk passenger, which she said was sent to her by the county.
The governor on Thursday was in Quincy announcing that a man in his 70s from Santa Rosa County had tested positive for coronavirus. DeSantis said the man suffered from underlying conditions and had traveled internationally but was too ill to answer all of doctors’ questions.
Earlier in the week, a woman who traveled with the first Hillsborough patient also tested positive. It’s unclear if she was on the same flight.
The Delta flight Nemeth-Harn rode last Wednesday arrived in Tampa at 11 a.m. at Gate E70, according to FlightAware. An airport spokeswoman has said staffers are cleaning areas like handrails and elevator buttons every shift.
Five other Florida residents have been diagnosed with coronavirus but are being quarantined out of state. DeSantis said they all visited China, the origin of the epidemic and location of most of the roughly 97,000 cases across the world. More than 3,300 people have died.
Health officials in Florida emphasize that people should wash their hands and cover their coughs but for the most part do not need to change their daily routines. Elderly people and those with underlying conditions are more at risk of having severe symptoms. Florida officials on Thursday were awaiting the results of 69 pending coronavirus tests.
Nemeth-Harn said she feels healthy and doubts she was infected.
“My fear is that this complete lack of communication or lack of information is going to undermine the trust in our public agencies,” she said. For her, she said, it already has.
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