Florida issues mistaken coronavirus travel advisory; lawmakers waffle on their own isolation

Florida’s leaders had an uneasy day in their continued effort to thwart COVID-19. A new case was announced late Monday in Volusia County.
State workers and Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, who is a doctor, disinfect desks on the House floor after the Speaker announced that five members will be self-quarantining.
State workers and Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, who is a doctor, disinfect desks on the House floor after the Speaker announced that five members will be self-quarantining. [ EMILY L. MAHONEY | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published March 9, 2020|Updated March 10, 2020

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And on the eighth day of coronavirus in Florida, there was confusion.

The Florida Department of Health issued, then walked back, a sweeping travel advisory Monday without explanation, and five state lawmakers went into self-isolation, then soon left it, upon learning they may have come into contact with people who have the flu-like illness.

First came the key update from state officials, which said anybody returning to Florida from abroad should self-isolate for 14 days. The alert put Florida into a stricter posture than the federal government and spurred questions about whether leaders were conceding the state’s tourist economy. The uncertainty ended a couple of hours later when the Department of Health rewrote its advisory to follow national guidelines, meaning only people who have traveled to China, Italy, Iran and South Korea should self-isolate. Others returning from cruises should “monitor (their) health and limit interactions with others for 14 days.”

Asked about the sudden change, Department of Health spokesman Alberto Moscoso offered little explanation.

“This update was sent to provide clarification based on new CDC guidelines,” he wrote in an email. But the caution around those four countries — each the site of outbreaks of coronavirus, known technically as COVID-19 — is not new.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said the release was supposed to include the names of the affected countries and the mistake was unacceptable.

“I think you’ve got to be very clear when you’re doing this, and I think there’s a lot of different things going on, but at the end of the day, those are the countries where we’ve identified outbreaks,” DeSantis said.

Fourteen people in Florida have tested positive for coronavirus, including one woman from California who is isolated in Hillsborough County. Two people, a man from Santa Rosa County and a woman from Lee County, both in their 70s, have died. Another five Floridians have contracted the disease, which can cause serious respiratory infections, but are currently isolated out of state. Doctors believe young and healthy people withstand coronavirus fairly well, but elderly people and those with existing medical trouble are more vulnerable.

The number of cases remained steady until 8:30 p.m. Monday, when the state announced a new patient: a 60-year-old woman in Volusia County who has traveled internationally. About 1 a.m. Tuesday, the state added another case, a 69-year-old woman in Broward County who has not made a recent trip abroad. Health officials say 115 coronavirus tests in Florida are pending and 302 people are being monitored for signs of the illness. Another 140 people have tested negative.

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Related: Woman, 69, becomes fourth person in Broward County to test positive for coronavirus, state says

Anticipating more positive tests and surging demand for medical assistance, the governor on Monday declared a state of emergency allowing nurses and doctors from other states to work in Florida and pharmacists to issue emergency 30-day prescriptions. The state of emergency also allows officials to more swiftly purchase supplies and establish field hospitals, which could be deployed to relieve stress on hospitals in the event of an outbreak.

DeSantis continued to say the threat to the public in Florida was low while urging older residents and those with underlying ailments to avoid long flights and large crowds and wash their hands.

The mixed messaging Monday was a sign of the state’s struggle to manage updates. In just a week and a half, Florida health officials have gone from a public position of not disclosing how many people were tested to greenlighting $25 million in funding to pay for things like medical supplies and public communications as the caseload grows.

“Lawmakers should not be having to go on Twitter to help correct important press releases for the Florida Department of Health," said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando. "There is way too much misinformation and panic out there on coronavirus, making clear and direct information to the press and public even more important.”

House Democratic Leader Kionne McGhee echoed the sentiment, noting that misinformation makes Floridians “confused and scared.”

"These errors underscore the lack of preparedness and attention to detail within the Department of Health in dealing with the worst public health emergency in decades," said McGhee, D-Miami. "Purely unacceptable."

McGhee was one of the lawmakers that briefly isolated Monday because of concerns he might have been exposed.

In South Florida, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office told employees who recently traveled internationally, many of whom have packed trial calendars, to go home. One Miami man, 28-year-old Christopher Sanchez, canceled a flight to Jamaica and was out of luck on a refund by the time the state revised its position.

At Tampa International Airport, spokeswoman Emily Nipps said, “There wasn’t panic, but we were glad to see the clarification to the advisory.”

The day only got more confounding.

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, who wore a gas mask on the House floor during an important vote on coronavirus relief, went into self-isolation after coming into contact with a person who had the illness at the Conservative Political Action Conference, which was held in Maryland last month. Earlier Monday, Gaetz rode in President Donald Trump’s limousine and on Air Force One.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., steps off Air Force One upon arrival Monday, March 9, 2020, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., steps off Air Force One upon arrival Monday, March 9, 2020, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. [ ALEX BRANDON | AP ]

Meanwhile, Florida House staffers wearing masks and blue medical gowns wiped down the chamber after five lawmakers went into self-isolation amid concerns they might have come into contact with people who have coronavirus. Among the disinfectors was Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, an emergency room doctor. The sudden emptying of the chamber seemed ripped from a science fiction script, a bizarre intermission to the busiest week of the annual legislative session.

The members entering self-isolation were Reps. Thad Altman of Indialantic, Anthony Sabatini of Howey-in-the-Hills and Cord Byrd of Neptune Beach, who each went to the Conservative Political Action Conference like Gaetz; along with McGhee of Miami and Byron Donalds, of Naples, who attended the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, where it was later confirmed two attendees had coronavirus.

Their isolation did not last.

A House spokesperson had said the representatives were entering self-isolation in an abundance of caution for their colleagues and would be tested even though they had not shown any symptoms. That was atypical — the protocol in Florida is for people who may have been directly exposed to someone with the virus to isolate at home, monitor their temperature and submit to a test if they begin to show symptoms.

After 15 minutes, House leaders consulted with Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, who apparently advised the lawmakers they were at “low risk” and did not meet federal guidelines to be tested. In short order, they were back on the floor of the House.

Shortly before this episode, top lawmakers who had previously signaled that the state’s budget would not change because of the growing crisis wavered as the stock market dropped. Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said the amount of money the Legislature assigns to teacher pay raises might be scaled back, and a tax break package could be reduced.

“The coronavirus, while it has had a rather minute effect on us, the panic surrounding it is having a real effect," Speaker José Oliva of Miami Lakes told members of the House.

The governor pushed back at the idea that teacher pay raises, one of his top priorities, could get cut. “I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time,’’ DeSantis said.

The coronavirus epidemic started in China and has now spread across the world, with more than 113,000 cases reported and nearly 4,000 deaths. The University of Florida’s provost late Monday recommended all in-person classes transition to electronic lessons.

State leaders did offer clarity on one point Monday: For the first time, they released the exact ages of those infected here.

CaseCountyAgeSexTraveled abroad?
3Santa Rosa71MY

Note: The state of Florida has not provided an age for the person from California who is isolated in Hillsborough County. This story was updated Tuesday to reflect a new case in Broward County.

Times/Herald staff writers Steve Contorno, Justine Griffin, Romy Ellenbogen and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report, which also used information from the Miami Herald.

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide

Q&A: The latest and all your questions answered.

PROTECT YOURSELF: Household cleaners can kill the virus on most surfaces, including your phone screen.

BE PREPARED: Guidelines for essentials to keep in your home should you have to stay inside.

FACE MASKS: They offer some protection, but studies debate their effectiveness.

WORKPLACE RISK: A list of five things employers could be doing to help curb the spread of the disease.

READER BEWARE: Look out for bad information as false claims are spreading online.

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