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TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency allowing nurses and doctors from other states to work in Florida and pharmacists to issue emergency 30-day prescriptions as the number of coronavirus cases in Florida remained steady on Monday.
The sweeping executive order allows officials to activate the Florida National Guard, purchase medical supplies more swiftly, and establish field hospitals, which could be deployed to relieve stress on hospitals in the event of a massive outbreak, DeSantis said.
“We’ll be in a position that we’ll be able to mobilize our resources more effectively,’’ said DeSantis, who on Monday spoke with President Trump and the task force of governors from other states.
The directive expands the public health emergency DeSantis declared on March 1, which allowed the Department of Health to isolate and quarantine people who test positive for COVID-19. DeSantis activated the state’s emergency operations center on Saturday but didn’t officially sign the emergency order until Monday.
The state is putting a priority on working with nursing homes, sending state regulators and staff from the Agency for Health Care Administration to meet with facilities that have a record of higher than normal problems with infection control, he said.
DeSantis continued to urge older Floridians and those with underlying medical conditions to avoid long flights and large crowds and wash their hands frequently.
“Those are the folks that really need to be protected,” he said. “What we’re seeing is this is a virus [that] for the vast, vast majority of individuals, will not lead to serious health complications.”
The state’s surgeon general, Scott Rivkees, is also working with the testing labs to track people who come in for flu tests to also track COVID-19 cases to determine who may be infected but only mildly symptomatic, DeSantis said.
“Has there been a spike in any areas of the state where people are reporting flu-like symptoms when they go in?,’’ DeSantis said. “Are there cases that are just simply under the radar?”
DeSantis ruled out a community spread of the virus among the three Broward patients who are among the 18 in Florida who have tested positive, saying that two of the cases involved individuals who worked at Port Everglades.
He said that the two crew members of the Caribbean Princess, while they are not exhibiting any symptoms, are considered high risk and are being isolated. The CDC has issued a do-not-disembark order for ship, which is set to dock at Port Everglades on March 11, until those crew members have tested negative.
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The state has also allowed two commercial companies, LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics, to conduct testing to augment the state’s three labs in Jacksonville, Tampa and Miami, DeSantis said.
The Florida Department of Health is also working to get federally-certified labs to be authorized to begin testing in the event the state has a surge of new cases, and DeSantis has also asked the federal Food and Drug Administration to consider authorizing Florida’s universities to design their own tests, if needed.
Shamarial Roberson, the deputy secretary of health, wouldn’t say how many testing kits the state has ordered at its three public health labs but emphasized that “we’re not on a shortage” and said the commercial testing labs will allow the state to expand its testing capacity beyond the three labs now operating.
Officials expect the virus to spread, and as it does, local officials could see a greater role in mitigating the outbreak.
DeSantis said the state’s containment strategy identifies people who have had contacts with others who have tested positive for COVID-19 and isolating them. The state is also preparing for the possibility the outbreak expands into community clusters.
When that happens the mitigating decisions “are primarily going to be driven at the local level,’’ the governor said. “We will offer whatever support and input, but I think a school district is going to be best to understand what they want to do.”
Cities and counties that host large events, for example, will be the ones to decide what to cancel and continue, he said.
“This is a fluid situation, and I think you gotta be willing and able to respond accordingly, but this is going to be a team effort,’’ he said. “It’s going to be a bottom-up effort. We’re going to be working with local communities but certainly not going to be dictating the decisions.”
Nursing homes and healthcare
Rivkees said that the Agency for Health Care Administration has been working on isolated screening of visitors and staff at nursing homes, asking visitors if they’ve had a fever, been on a cruise ship, or have traveled internationally over the past two weeks.
The goal, he said, is “intersecting a potential transmission” and preventing it.
AHCA staff has been visiting nursing homes “on a regular basis to make sure that we’re informed and we’ve had regular phone calls to make sure that everybody is aware,’’ he said.
DeSantis said he expects Florida to receive at least $27 million from the $8.3 billion congressional supplemental budget passed last week in response to the coronavirus.
He asked the Florida Legislature to allocate $25 million to the Department of Health to pay for “lab supplies, personal protective equipment, additional statewide staff to investigate and monitor individuals who are infected and those at risk for contracting, as well as enhanced communication to the public, healthcare providers and visitors to our state.”
Lost wages, business response
DeSantis said he realized the economic impact the crisis will have on individuals and said he hoped that businesses will offer flexibility. He said Orlando-based Darden Restaurants has offered to give employees paid time off if they have symptoms of the virus and, he said, he expects more companies to do the same.
“We have some limited ability to help folks who are self-isolating when they have loss of income, but I think it’s gonna require the private sector to be involved, in addition to state and federal government,’’ he said.
Emergency Operations Secretary Jared Moskowitz told the Times/Herald on Sunday that the governor’s declaration would give him the flexibility to set appropriate staffing levels at the state emergency operations center.
The declaration also allows county emergency operation centers to declare local states of emergency to open their centers to help dispel rumors and respond with more resources.
“Those are local decisions,” Moskowitz said. “Obviously, we can provide guidance and sway them to do certain things.”
Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporter Samantha J. Gross contributed to this report
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