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Coronavirus in Florida: Answering your questions on cases, closures and ‘social distancing’

Amid a rapidly changing situation, the Tampa Bay Times is talking to experts and mining the web to keep you up to date with reliable, factual information.

Stories about the coronavirus pandemic are free to read as a public service at tampabay.com/coronavirus. Sign up for our DayStarter newsletter to receive updates weekday mornings. If this coverage is important to you, consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Tampa Bay Times at tampabay.com/subscribe.

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It’s week three of coronavirus in Florida, and the pandemic has touched nearly every part of everyday life.

Sports and events are canceled. Schools and theme parks are closed. Workplaces have begun shifting to remote operations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended against gatherings of 50 or more people. The Associated Press reported that the country is barreling toward a shutdown.

And confirmed cases continue to crop up in the Tampa Bay area, Florida and worldwide. There are now more than 150 confirmed cases in Florida and rising. There are likely more, but Florida has tested too few people to say.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said over the weekend that community spread — which applies when people have been infected with the virus in an area, including some who are not sure how or where they became infected — is happening in Florida. The governor emphasized that, while the odds of getting seriously ill from the coronavirus are “still very small,” there remains the real risk of transmitting it to someone more vulnerable.

With public interest in the virus high, here are the answers to some common questions. Got more? Email kvarn@tampabay.com, message the Tampa Bay Times on Facebook or reply to us on Twitter.

You can also stay up to date with our new 10-minute podcast, Coronavirus in Florida. We’ll talk to experts and reporters, share the facts behind the spread of the virus and discuss what could happen next.

The latest on cases

Have the number of coronavirus cases been increasing in Florida?

Yes. There are now more than 100 cases. There have also been four deaths of Florida residents. The latest is a 68-year-old Orlando area woman who visited South Korea, then fell ill in California. She died before returning to Florida. A 77-year-old resident of Lee County also died, the Florida Department of Health said Saturday.

Our latest on all the positive tests can be found here and here is a map and other details about all the cases.

The total number of people in Florida who have tested positive and negative for the disease can also be found on the Florida Department of Health website.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization are also tracking the disease in the U.S. and internationally.

What is the latest in the Tampa Bay area?

Eight people in the Tampa Bay area have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Do we know the identities of any of the local people who have tested positive?

We know one. The man who tested positive in Pasco County announced it on his business Facebook page, then talked to the Times. That story can be found here.

We also know of an apartment complex that told residents there was a positive case in the neighborhood. Full story here.

Has the Times spoken to anyone who has traveled from high-risk areas back to this area?

Yes. We spoke to a nurse who was quarantined, then made his way to Spain, London and eventually Tampa. His assessment: “The farther west I went, the less and less concerned people seemed to be.” Read his full story here.

Changes, closures and cancellations

There’s a presidential primary election on Tuesday in Florida. What’s the latest?

It’s still a go, even as other states have asked to postpone. “We’re not going to panic,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said.

But double check your polling place before you head out. The outbreak has forced Pinellas and Hillsborough counties to move polling places for Tuesday’s presidential primary. Read our full report here.

What about WrestleMania?

WrestleMania 36, scheduled for April 5 at Raymond James Stadium, is still on for now ... but stay tuned. A county emergency policy team hasn’t made a final decision.

Has this affected other sporting events?

It sure has. PGA announced Friday it would postpone the Masters Tournament. The Valspar Championship is canceled. MLB on Thursday suspended spring training and pushed Opening Day back two weeks. The NHL and NBA seasons have been suspended indefinitely. The Tampa Bay Rowdies’ season has been halted and MLS also is shutting down for 30 days. The American Athletic Conference, in which USF plays, announced late Thursday morning it has canceled its men’s basketball tournament in Fort Worth, Texas. The Tampa Bay Bucs also discontinued travel for scouts, coaches and staff due to coronavirus.

Here’s a full rundown of what’s happened.

What about theme parks like Disney and Busch Gardens?

Florida’s theme parks (Walt Disney World, Universal, Busch Gardens, SeaWorld, Adventure Island and Legoland) closed for two weeks starting Monday. Full story here.

Disney Springs will close Tuesday through the end of the month, and Disney’s resort hotels will close starting at 5 p.m. March 20. More here.

How about beaches? Are they still open?

Yes. Pinellas County will keep beaches open until state emergency officials request the popular destinations to close, Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton said Monday. Full story here.

And the pool?

Water isn’t an issue, but as with anything, being in a public place, such as a pool at a gym or city park, is risky.

“I’m less worried about the water, but more about being in a public place and touching the rails and other shared areas,” said Dr. Brett Levine, a family medicine physician in St. Petersburg.

He said most public places are taking extra precautions to clean, but the responsible thing to do would be to avoid public use areas altogether. “I would advise my patients to get outside and take a jog instead.”

What about the courts? Do people still have to go to jury duty?

The Florida Supreme Court ordered that most face-to-face legal proceedings across the state cease for the next two weeks. Read the full story here.

What’s going on with religious services?

The Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg issued a dispensation for mass services. The Times has also heard of several Tampa Bay area churches that have canceled live gatherings and are moving to video streaming.

Check with your religious institution before heading to regularly scheduled services.

What about conventions that were scheduled in Tampa? Are they being canceled?

It’s under consideration, especially with the fact that someone who attended a conference of emergency medical personnel in Tampa last week fell ill with the disease.

Is there any chance other area events may be canceled?

Yes. For the latest on cancellations, our ongoing list and database are here.

And this story does a great job summing up just what kind of a day it was on Thursday when so much was canceled.

What about Publix?

The Lakeland company said its supermarkets will close at 8 p.m. The company said it needs time to stock shelves and sanitize stores.

I heard Publix is limiting the number of items that people can buy of certain products. Is that true?

Yes, it is. Publix is limiting customers to only two of some items, including soap, hand sanitizer, wipes and other items. Full story here.

Travel

Is traffic at Tampa International Airport being affected?

Yes. The airport says that spring break traffic is down and they don’t expect to break records as they have over the past several years.

Is airline travel particularly unsafe?

While the disease certainly spreads during travel, planes may not be the sick factories we think. In fact, only those seated close to an infected person are at even medium risk. Read our full story about this here.

What about going on cruises?

Major cruises have been delayed coming into port because of positive or pending coronavirus cases on board. On Sunday, the State Department issued a warning against traveling by cruise ship. The CDC said risk of infection is higher on a cruise because of the close quarters. The Regal Princess cruise ship finally pulled into a Florida port and passengers began disembarking after two crew members tested negative for coronavirus.

Meanwhile, coronavirus has led Tampa cruise lines to ease cancellation policies. And some Florida cases have been linked to cruises on the Nile River.

I heard someone with COVID-19 came through Tampa International Airport. What do we know?

A spokeswoman for the airport announced March 2 that a woman in her 20s who had traveled to northern Italy and was later diagnosed with COVID-19 flew through the airport.

A woman who was on that flight tells the Tampa Bay Times that the response she has seen from her health department has been “unacceptable.”

Schools

Have any Tampa Bay area schools closed?

All schools in Florida will close for a week in addition to regularly scheduled spring breaks. For Tampa Bay area schools, that means students will be off for spring break the week of March 16, then another week off starting March 23. Full story here.

What else should I know about spring break?

Tampa Bay schools are asking students and parents to inform the district about certain travel plans and other conditions before returning to school after spring break. Full story here.

My child is on free and reduced lunch. Will they still have access to meals?

Yes. Hillsborough and Pinellas school officials said that starting March 23, they will be giving out free meals at sites in each county. For Hillsborough’s list, click here. For Pinellas’ list, click here. Pasco officials said they would announce a list soon.

How are colleges reacting?

Florida higher education leaders directed all state universities to move classes online as soon as possible.

Schools should offer remote, online teaching while keeping campuses open and operations regular for students who don’t have the option to relocate, The Board of Governors for the State University System said.

Eckerd College, a private school in Pinellas County, also will close dorms and extend spring break through March 29, then will move classes online. Nova Southeastern University is suspending classes until March 23 then will move online.

Senior care and nursing homes

Who is most at risk?

Dr. Sally Alrabaa, an infectious disease specialist with the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, said unlike other outbreaks, coronavirus seems to be most severe for the elderly and people with health issues. There have not been many reports of severe issues in children and healthy adults.

What is being done to protect senior citizens?

If COVID-19 spreads, the elderly are most at risk to suffer the most severe symptoms, including death — and no state has a higher share of residents in their 70s, 80s or older than Florida.

CDC recommendations for senior citizens remain the same as for the rest of the population. The World Health Organization recommends people over 60 avoid crowded areas.

Nursing homes and other elder care facilities are of particular concern. The CDC has a pandemic planning checklist for long-term care and residential health facilities.

Tampa Meals on Wheels is preparing multi-day food packs in case one of the people they deliver to has to self-isolate for 14 days.

I’ve heard reports of some nursing homes not allowing visits. Is that happening?

Facilities are expected to take visitors’ temperatures and ask questions about their contacts and travels. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has issued an executive order preventing large groups of people from visiting nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and similar sites in Florida in an effort to stop the spread of novel coronavirus among some of the state’s most vulnerable people.

Anyone who’s traveled internationally, sailed on a cruise ship, exhibits symptoms of coronavirus or has been in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus is temporarily prohibited from visiting those sites, he said.

The Times spoke with some family members of people in nursing homes, who said they are worried but understand the restrictions. Full story here.

The Times’ Leonora LaPeter Anton also wrote about her own experience with these restrictions at her father’s memory care facility. Read her heartbreaking account here.

Will getting the pneumonia vaccine help seniors handle coronavirus any better?

Dr. Seetha Lakshmi, an infectious disease physician at Tampa General Hospital, said it could. “I encourage all my patients to make sure they are updated on vaccinations, including the annual flu shot and the pneumonia vaccine.”

Other vulnerable groups

Are first-responders like firefighters and paramedics taking precautions?

Yes, they are. In fact, residents shouldn’t be alarmed if they see first-responders wearing gloves, gowns and masks. They’re just taking the proper precautions. Here’s our full story on this here.

Are doctors or nurses getting sick?

About 80 nurses across the country have been quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure and a local nurse with more than 30 years of experience tells us: “This is the most serious thing I’ve been through personally."

There are a lot of veterans in the Tampa Bay area and Florida. Are there special services for veterans who think they may have coronavirus?

Yes. Veterans health officials are encouraging veterans who believe they’ve come down with the coronavirus to call a toll-free number for a preliminary diagnosis and to prepare for a trip to a medical center or clinic. The number is 1-877-741-3400. More information here.

Are Florida prisons still allowing visits?

No. Inmates will no longer be able to receive visitors in Florida’s prisons. Full story here.

Are all the updates being communicated with Floridians who don’t speak English?

Though government agencies broadly recognize the need to translate their messages into Spanish, Health Department offices were struggling to adapt this philosophy to the growing health concern. Read our full story about this here.

What about hourly or contract workers?

Many companies with workers who don’t usually get sick time — like Uber and Instacart — are re-evaluating their sick leave policies, though challenges remain.

Pets and animals

Can pets get coronavirus?

The risk of this form of coronavirus spreading to humans from pet, from pet to pet, or from pet to humans, is tiny, an expert told the Times. But there is still a lot to learn about the virus, so she urged caution. Read our full story here.

Understanding the virus

What are the symptoms?

Common symptoms are fever, cough and shortness of breath. These symptoms may appear from two to 14 days after exposure to the virus.

Symptoms have ranged from mild to severe, but health officials recommend you call a doctor if you develop symptoms and have been to a country where coronavirus has been widespread, like Italy or China.

In severe cases, mainly with older patients, coronavirus can lead to pneumonia.

Also, keep in mind we’re in peak allergy season. Experts said allergies can be distinguished from something more serious, because allergies don’t come with fever.

How does it compare to the standard flu?

Both have about the same level of infection, Alrabaa said, meaning if you meet someone with the flu and someone with coronavirus you have about the same odds of getting infected. She said influenza is more deadly but that coronavirus has a more severe effect on older people.

Can I use antibiotics to treat or prevent coronavirus?

No. Antibiotics are not effective for a virus.

Can the virus be passed through water sources?

No. The CDC says the virus spreads from person to person in close contact, within about six feet. Alrabaa said it can’t spread through water systems in buildings or cities, and instead passes through respiratory droplets from someone or from droplets they leave on a surface.

According to the CDC, “the COVID-19 virus has not been detected in drinking water. Conventional water treatment methods that use filtration and disinfection, such as those in most municipal drinking water systems, should remove or inactivate the virus that causes COVID-19.”

Tampa Bay Water — the water provider for Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, St. Petersburg, Tampa and New Port Richey utility customers — issued a news release saying tap water remains safe to drink. Customers with questions can call 866-463-6420.

Should I wear a mask?

Probably not. The World Health Organization recommends only people with coronavirus or those caring for them wear masks. Masks are only effective if worn properly and in combination with proper handwashing. If needed, the WHO has a guide on how to properly put on and remove masks.

The U.S. Surgeon General also sent out a Tweet telling people to stop buying masks because they’re not effective for the general public and could make it harder for health officials to access supplies they need.

However, that didn’t stop a Tampa strip club from offering 10,000 masks to customers.

How does the virus spread? Can it live on an object shipped from China?

The disease spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets. It can also be picked up on surfaces, but the CDC said that doesn’t seem to be the primary way it spreads.

The CDC said there is little risk of objects being shipped from China carrying coronavirus because the virus has a poor chance of surviving on a surface shipped over the course of several days or weeks at an ambient temperature. There are no cases in the U.S. associated with imported goods.

Is there any chance the spread of the virus will slow soon?

Alrabaa said there will likely be more cases before things slow down. DeSantis also said there will likely be more positive cases in Florida. The CDC said it’s unknown whether the spread of the disease will change when the weather gets warmer.

Can the coronavirus’ spread be stopped?

The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a “pandemic.”

But that doesn’t mean that measures like social distancing, vigilant hand-washing and in some cases, self-isolating, can’t make a difference.

"All countries can still change the course of this pandemic,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who heads the U.N. agency. “If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilize their people in the response.”

I’ve been hearing the term “community spread” ... what the heck is that?

"Community spread means people have been infected with the virus in an area, including some who are not sure how or where they became infected,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There has been some dispute about whether community spread has occurred in Florida. Listen to our podcast about community spread, and for a full glossary of other coronavirus terms, go here.

Is Florida more vulnerable to coronavirus than other states?

Yes. Experts believe it is, citing the state’s large number of seniors and those who are uninsured. Our full story on this topic is here.

Will the warming springtime temperatures in Florida affect how the disease spreads?

Experts hope warming temperatures — and we’re expecting the 80s starting this week — could slow the spread, as viruses like these typically spread more in cold weather, when people gather more indoors and heating systems dry out our systems.

But experts also warn that so little is known about the virus, there’s not enough evidence to expect the spread to weaken. So don’t count on returning fully to normal by summer. Full story here.

Understanding the response

What should I do if I think I need to be tested?

The Florida Department of Health can now test for coronavirus in Tampa, Jacksonville and Miami.

Health officials advise to call ahead to a doctor or health department if you suspect you have coronavirus so they can prepare for your arrival and limit the risk of infecting others.

You can also visit the doctor virtually. Many hospital systems have the option, which lets doctors give you advice and can keep people out of the ER if it’s not needed.

To contact the health department directly, call 866-779-6121 or email COVID-19@flhealth.gov.

What is the latest with testing?

It’s lagging behind other states, and the Times has heard from several Floridians who wanted to get tested but couldn’t. Full story here.

State labs in Miami, Jacksonville and Tampa have run nearly 400 tests, with more than 150 of those still awaiting results. Read more about the process here.

How much will it cost me if I get tested?

As of now, if you’re seen at an emergency room or urgent care center, you would likely pay what you ordinarily would based on your insurance plan or lack thereof. It is not immediately clear if the amount would be different at a Department of Health office.

How ready is Florida’s health department for the coronavirus?

Even before the coronavirus outbreak in Florida, the state health department said it needed more resources to handle emerging infectious disease threats. The Department of Health is straining to keep up after years of staff cuts.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and lawmakers appear poised to boost the state’s response to the virus outbreak with $25 million in state funding, but experts say that won’t make up for years of underfunding that have eroded the agency’s readiness.

Are local hospitals preparing?

Yes. “We’re in a much better status than some of these countries to take care of ill patients,” Alrabaa said. She said all hospitals in the community have a task force and have dealt with respiratory issues from a virus before. BayCare Health Systems announced Friday it will be screening visitors to its health centers for coronavirus.

The Tampa Bay Times has a pay gateway, so I can only read a limited number of articles about this public health crisis, right?

All our stories about coronavirus are not behind our pay gateway, so you can access all of them for free. The Times does this in times of crisis or emergency, including hurricanes. If you’re valuing all our coverage and would like to subscribe, you can do so here.

I heard Florida Sen. Rick Scott has gone into quarantine?

Yes. Scott announced Thursday he will self-quarantine after having possible contact with Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s press secretary Fabio Wajngarten during a meeting in Florida this week.

I heard something about Florida requiring people who have flown internationally to go into quarantine or isolation. Is that true?

No. The state Department of Health put out an advisory declaring on March 9, but pulled that recommendation back after several hours. Currently, only people who have traveled to China, Italy, Iran and South Korea should self-isolate.

I’m hearing a lot of rumors ... how do I know what’s true?

As with any emerging news, wild claims and misinformation can spread fear and confusion. False posts online have already distorted symptoms of the virus and peddled miracle cures. We’ve debunked a few myths.

Stay informed by following trusted news sources. Members of the public are urged to follow the advice of established institutions like WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and to beware of claims suggesting ways to prevent the virus.

Economic and business impact

Have the markets been affected?

Yes, they have. In fact, Thursday was the worst day on Wall Street since 1987 as virus fears spread.

How should workplaces prepare for the virus?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends companies keep a flexible sick leave policy and encourage employees to stay home even for minor respiratory illness or a slight fever.

For businesses that rely on temporary or contract employees without sick time, the CDC says to develop “non-punitive leave policies.” If an employee shows up coughing or sneezing, separate them from their coworkers and send them home sick or to work remotely.

Employers should also remind staff of hygiene etiquette, ensure the workplace is sanitized regularly and provide wipes or cleaning supplies, keep track of employees who are traveling and prepare an infectious disease outbreak response plan.

If public officials move to recommend people maintain a physical distance from each other, plan how your business will respond. Will it stagger shifts to decrease people’s contact with one another or offer flexible work hours and telecommuting options?

Are there any Tampa Bay businesses struggling?

We talked to one business owner whose plight has become “a case study in the ways that the mushrooming coronavirus pandemic is creating havoc and doubt for many small businesses that rely on imports.” Our full story is here.

Are people staying at home and using delivery services more?

Yes. Rather than go to the grocery store, some people are increasingly outsourcing the task to delivery drivers who are managing a surge of large orders. Full story here.

Prepare yourself

How can I protect myself?

Avoid touching your face, cover sneezes and coughs with a tissue, and wash hands frequently for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water aren’t around, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.

Clean items you frequently touch often and thoroughly. These include your phone, phone case, counter tops, door knobs and keyboards. Use a cleaning spray or wipe. Also, wash dishes thoroughly and avoid sharing them with others.

What is social distancing, and how can I practice it responsibly?

Social distancing is a way to slow the spread of a contagious disease such as COVID-19 by reducing contact between people. We’ve got tips for how to do that in this story.

Should I stop shaking hands with people?

Yes. Try a bow or an elbow-bump as a greeting instead. Experts say keeping some distance in social interactions can help prevent the spread of the virus.

As we found out in this story, churches and local law groups are encouraging people to avoid shaking hands during gatherings.

Does using public transportation, going to events with large crowds or traveling put me at risk?

Alrabaa said avoiding crowded places reduces the risk of catching any illness. Frequent hand washing and good hygiene reduce that risk.

“The reality is anything people touch has some sort of a germ on it,” she said.

I guess I should stock up in case the virus spreads further. What belongs in a quarantine home kit?

You don’t need to raid the grocery store, but experts recommend keeping a two-week supply of non-perishable food for everyone in your home in case you need to self-isolate, so that you can avoid going out. That could include rice, pasta, beans, oats, canned foods, snacks and bottled water.

Here’s our in-depth shopping list.

Keep cleaning supplies in stock, like laundry detergent, antibacterial soap, and hand sanitizer with at least 60-percent alcohol contact. Don’t forget hygiene items like diapers, toilet paper and feminine care products.

Make sure you have at least a 30-day supply of prescription medication and keep electronic records of health records from doctors and hospitals. Make a list of emergency contacts.

Reasons for hope

Is there any good news?

There is. Amid all the fears, quarantines and stockpiling of food, it has been easy to ignore the fact that more than 60,000 people have recovered from the coronavirus spreading around the globe. Full story here. And coronavirus has resulted in gas prices plunging below $2 a gallon in some places around the Tampa Bay area.

I’m feeling mentally and emotionally exhausted. What can I do?

The Times has made a handy guide to help get you through this chaotic time. From concerns about the unrelenting news cycle to missing loved ones to going stir crazy, we’ve got you covered.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide

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

EVENT CANCELLATIONS: Get the latest updates on events planned in the Tampa Bay area in the coming weeks.

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.

STOCK UP YOUR PANTRY: Foods that should always be in your kitchen, for emergencies and everyday life.

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.

OTHER CORONAVIRUS WEBSITES:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Florida Department of Health

We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.

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