Feds say Florida has ‘community spread’ of coronavirus. Florida disagrees.

Gov. Ron DeSantis says Florida is not experiencing “community spread” of COVID-19. But the White House gave a different answer.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks Tuesday in the briefing room of the White House with Vice President Mike Pence, left.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks Tuesday in the briefing room of the White House with Vice President Mike Pence, left. [ CAROLYN KASTER | AP ]
Published March 11, 2020|Updated March 11, 2020

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TALLAHASSEE — Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading infectious disease expert on the federal Coronavirus Task Force, plainly stated on Tuesday that Florida is one of four states with “community spread” of the disease and therefore elevated risk.

“What we’re saying today is that although we keep coming in and saying appropriately that as a nation the risk is relatively low, there are parts of the country right now that are having community spread in which the risk there is clearly a bit more than that,” Fauci said. “And you know the places: Washington state, California, New York and Florida.”

But here in Florida, state officials in Gov. Ron Desantis’ office directly contradicted Fauci.

When asked about the doctor’s assertion of community spread, governor’s spokeswoman Helen Ferré provided this statement to the Times/Herald: “As Governor DeSantis stated (Monday), there is no community spread of COVID-19 in Florida at this time."

On Monday, the governor had said multiple cases of coronavirus in Broward County tied to a cruise services company at Port Everglades were not evidence of community spread. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines community spread as: “People have been infected with the virus in an area, including some who are not sure how or where they became infected."

In Florida, the majority of the 15 people in the state who have tested positive for coronavirus traveled overseas. But four patients in Broward and a Manatee County man each have no history of visiting places where there have been outbreaks of coronavirus internationally, according to the Florida Department of Health.

“According to the CDC, community spread means people have been randomly infected with the virus in an area where there is uncertainty as to how or where they became infected,” Ferré said Tuesday when asked about the discrepancy. “In Broward County, the three workers at the port work for the same company, in the same location, and tested positive for COVID-19.”

How the first of those three people came in contact with the virus has not been made known if, indeed, public health officials have that information.

The state has not said publicly how the Manatee man might have contracted coronavirus.

The distinction is not just a matter of semantics.

"When you have community spread you’re obviously going to ratchet up the kinds of mitigations that you have,” said Fauci.

There are still unanswered questions about people who tested positive for COVID-19 despite not having any known travel history to affected areas.

One day after health officials announced Florida’s first two “presumptive positive” COVID-19 results, they went on a press tour from the state’s west coast to Miami-Dade.

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On the fourth floor of the county’s Department of Health building, DeSantis shared details about a Manatee County man in his 60s who tested positive for the virus despite having no known travel history to affected areas at the time.

DeSantis said the man had “a lot of underlying health conditions” and was in contact with several healthcare professionals before his diagnosis, raising concerns about the staff of Doctors Hospital of Sarasota, where the patient was being cared for when he tested positive.

On the same press tour, State Surgeon General Scott Rivkees startled reporters when he said the Manatee County man was hospitalized for five days before he was first tested for COVID-19. The state has said the man wasn’t eligible for testing until the CDC updated its criteria.

Ferré said fears of community spread in Broward County are unfounded since the patients work for the same company in the same location, therefore deeming it not random.

So why would Fauci refer to Florida when talking about community spread?

“That is a question for Dr. Fauci and (the Centers for Disease Control),” Ferré said.

Fauci is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He was first appointed to the role in 1984 and has worked with six presidents. He’s widely known for his contributions in HIV/AIDS research. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008 from Pres. George W. Bush.

Two coronavirus patients, a man from Santa Rosa County and a woman from Lee County, both in their 70s, have died. Doctors believe young and healthy people withstand coronavirus fairly well, but elderly people and those with existing medical trouble are more vulnerable.

The latest cases announced by the state are a 60-year-old Volusia County woman who has traveled internationally and a 69-year-old Broward County woman who has not recently been abroad.

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this story.

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