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TALLAHASSEE —Gov. Ron DeSantis conceded Saturday that there was evidence of wider contamination of the coronavirus in Florida while announcing the suspension of all visits to nursing homes, assisted living facilities and similar sites across the state.
With a sharp uptick in cases overnight, DeSantis raised Florida’s emergency level to a “1” — the same level as an approaching hurricane. The designation triggers 24/7 staffing of the state’s emergency operations center to respond.
Previously, visitors were screened at nursing homes, assisted living facilities, adult family care homes, long term care facilities and adult group homes.
Now, visitation is being stopped outright for the next 30 days to protect the most vulnerable, although exceptions will be made for “compassionate visitation,” DeSantis said.
“We cannot say enough about the risk that exists for our elderly and those with underlying medical conditions,” Florida Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Mary Mayhew said.
For people over the age of 70, coronavirus can be “highly deadly,” Mayhew said. Although the illness is similar to the flu, it is far more dangerous. DeSantis said that in Italy, the virus had a fatality rate of 20 percent for people 75 and older.
“There’s no question for senior citizens and for medically-vulnerable people, this is much, much more deadly than the seasonal flu,” DeSantis said.
Mayhew made a plea to family members to be patient and understanding during the restrictions.
“To the family members, this is being done because of our love and compassion and concern,” she said. “We are taking every step possible to protect our most vulnerable.”
She also asked family members to be patient with staff at those facilities. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities do not have negative pressure rooms or staff ready to use the necessary surgical masks, she said.
“Now is no time for individuals to be angry and frustrated about what patient gets transferred and what patient gets admitted," Mayhew said. "We need to be supporting hospitals and nursing facilities so they can fulfill their role.”
Saturday’s announcement came as DeSantis told Floridians to brace for an outbreak that could last six to eight weeks and require Floridians to change their daily habits. Hands should be washed frequently, crowds should be avoided and anyone who’s sick should stay home, he said.
For the first time, DeSantis acknowledged that there was evidence of “community spread” of coronavirus in Florida. That term means the infection is much more difficult to contain. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define “community spread” as an area where multiple people have contracted the virus without knowing how.
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Hours earlier, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said that Florida is among the states that have experienced “community spread” of the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.
“Now we’ve seen community spread in Massachusetts and also Florida,” Pence said during a Saturday news conference.
For the last week, DeSantis and state health officials have denied such spread of the virus, even as the number of cases has grown and with health officials unable to say how people had contracted the illness.
Pence was the second U.S. official to say the virus had spread in Florida. On Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, an infectious disease expert with the federal Coronavirus Task Force, named Florida as one of four states with “community spread.” DeSantis said that he spoke with Fauci after the announcement and maintained that Florida did not meet the definition.
Florida officials announced early Saturday morning the discovery of 25 more coronavirus-infected patients, the largest number announced since the virus was found in Florida on March 1. The state also announced the third Floridian to die from the flu-like illness, a 68-year-old Orange County woman who traveled to Asia and had been tested in California.
DeSantis said the “vast, vast majority” of people with coronavirus in Florida got it from other places, including Egypt, Iran and New York. A number of cases in Broward County are students from Ireland, he said.
“We’ve had it not just from Asia, but from really all over the world,” DeSantis said.
He said President Donald J. Trump should consider limiting domestic flights, and flights between New York and Florida in particular, to prevent inter-state spread of the virus.
“We’ve spoken to the administration. We’re concerned about domestic flights,” he said.
However, DeSantis was apparently unaware that other states are discovering coronavirus-infected patients who traveled to Florida. Oklahoma, for example, recently identified one woman with coronavirus who had spent time in Florida, indicating she contracted the illness here.
When asked about it Saturday, DeSantis turned to state Surgeon General Scott Rivkees to ask if he’d heard of the new cases. Rivkees responded that he was “awaiting information” from other states.
To combat the virus, DeSantis said he was freeing up the Department of Health to hire additional epidemiologists. The state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles is also suspending driver’s license renewal requirements for the next 30 days.
“We don’t want people to have to worry about that right now while they’re dealing with the effects of COVID-19,” DeSantis said.
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