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Florida coronavirus cases grow to 160 with 5 deaths. State, residents struggle to keep up.

South Florida has the most known cases of coronavirus in the state. Meanwhile, cancellations continue to pile up in Tampa Bay.
White tents have popped up outside hospital emergency rooms across Tampa Bay this week. Hospitals are using the tents for overflow and to screen all patients for potential coronavirus before allowing some onto campus. At Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, nurses and physicians wearing protective gowns, gloves and masks can test "non-acutely ill" patients. The tented area is used "as a way to reduce the risk of exposure to other other patients" and is in place in case it's "needed for patient surges," said David Larrick, a spokesman for Bayfront Health. "This is a rapidly developing situation and we are adapting our plans and processes as needed."
White tents have popped up outside hospital emergency rooms across Tampa Bay this week. Hospitals are using the tents for overflow and to screen all patients for potential coronavirus before allowing some onto campus. At Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, nurses and physicians wearing protective gowns, gloves and masks can test "non-acutely ill" patients. The tented area is used "as a way to reduce the risk of exposure to other other patients" and is in place in case it's "needed for patient surges," said David Larrick, a spokesman for Bayfront Health. "This is a rapidly developing situation and we are adapting our plans and processes as needed." [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Mar. 16, 2020|Updated Mar. 17, 2020

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TALLAHASSEE — Florida health officials announced more coronavirus cases Monday, and the death of a fifth person, as the state and its residents struggled to keep pace with a pandemic that is causing an unprecedented contraction of public life.

The new batch of positive tests brought the total the state is tracking to 160, covering both Floridians and visitors who are isolating here. It’s an incomplete accounting of the true breadth of the disease, hampered by a lack of initial testing.

Amid the collective unease, growing as offices and schools empty out, the Florida Department of Health made a new commitment Monday to provide clearer and more accurate information to the public on the illness, known as COVID-19. That follows two weeks of unpredictable, late-night news releases and conflicting guidance.

South Florida remains the site of the most known cases, with the state identifying 39 in Broward County and 23 in Miami-Dade. Officials reported five cases in Hillsborough, four in Pinellas, two in Pasco and another five in Manatee. Hernando County has not reported any coronavirus patients to date.

The state has followed the federal government in what critics have derided as a faltering response that exacerbates the feeling of whiplash as society shuts down in an effort to thwart the disease’s spread. Monday brought news of restrictions on restaurants, bars and beaches, applied unevenly across cities in the absence of specific guidance from Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had on Sunday recommended an end to gatherings of more than 50 people for eight weeks. But President Donald Trump offered starker advice in a Monday news briefing, urging that people avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 and that officials close bars and restaurants in areas with “community spread,” where health workers cannot determine how some patients might have contracted the disease.

"Yesterday CDC said 50 people for gatherings. Now less than 24 hours later it's the 10,” DeSantis said at an evening news conference. “We wanted to wait for the CDC's guidance, and they didn't specifically say that you should prescribe, but they basically told people to avoid.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis holds a press conference last Friday in Tallahassee. Boxes that contained COVID-19 test kits are stacked to his side.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis holds a press conference last Friday in Tallahassee. Boxes that contained COVID-19 test kits are stacked to his side. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]

Governors in several states dictated varying levels of shutdowns for bars and restaurants before Florida, including in California, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. DeSantis said the state might have more advice Tuesday but will “internalize” the CDC’s guidance overnight.

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The governor has repeatedly said he wants to leave such decisions to local officials. “This is not uniform in terms of where the virus is percolating,” he said.

But that means as doctors warn people to distance themselves from others to stop transmission of the disease, which has already swept across the globe, rules in Florida differ from county to county.

“He’s indicating things he recommends municipalities and governments do, but at some point, it’s going to need to be more than a recommendation,” said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who on Monday halved restaurant capacities, moved up bars’ last call in his city to 9 p.m. and banned gatherings of 50 or more people. “That’s how you get statewide uniformity.”

Doctors believe coronavirus spreads primarily from person to person, through droplets when people cough or sneeze.

Near Miami, officials have announced swaths of South Beach will be closed after 5 p.m., but in Pinellas, County Administrator Barry Burton said there are no plans to shut down the signature shoreline without a state mandate.

Meanwhile, the effects of the disease are already seeping into Tampa Bay’s economy. Tampa International Airport saw a 10 to 15 percent reduction in business during the first two weeks of March, generally among the busiest times of the year, said spokeswoman Emily Nipps. Armature Works, a food court and bar in Tampa, announced it will close until further notice.

On Wall Street, stocks dropped again.

DeSantis said he worries about the effect the virus will have on small businesses. The state will supplement any effort from the Small Business Administration with a $50 million loan program, he said. The governor is also ordering the Department of Revenue to ease deadlines on corporate income and sales taxes.

Florida’s response to coronavirus has teetered through several missteps. Last week, the Department of Health mistakenly published a travel advisory saying anyone who went abroad would be asked to self-isolate for 14 days upon return. Officials later pulled back that guidance.

A top federal infectious disease specialist said Florida had “community spread,” a sign of elevated risk, before officials here would confirm it.

Health leaders have repeatedly published lists of new cases at midnight or even later, with numbers in email alerts not clearly matching those publicly posted to the Department of Health COVID-19 website. DeSantis said the state will start giving daily updates at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. going forward. Health officials were late on both times Monday.

The state has created a dashboard to help in its “ongoing efforts to provide transparency and clarity regarding COVID-19.” It’s a modified version of the hurricane emergency map. But rather than showing power outages in each county, the map shows the number of people with coronavirus along with the number of negative tests (816) and pending tests (848).

Health officials are trying to track the roots of each case, and the state has reported 32 positive cases remain under investigation; 45 involve just travel; 51 involve both travel and contact with another confirmed case; and 32 relate only to contact with a confirmed case.

Coronavirus has infected more than 181,000 people worldwide, killing more than 7,100, including five tied to Florida — the latest announced Monday night as a person who tested positive in Orange County. It causes symptoms like coughing and shortness of breath and can also lead to respiratory infections, dangerous especially for elderly people and those with chronic health conditions.

The CDC publishes crisis communication recommendations, which urge officials to provide timely and accurate information.

“The public wants to know what the responders know during a public health crisis,” a 2014 guide reads. “They view every move and watch every passing emotion of those responding during a disaster, crisis or emergency. In a crisis, every word counts.”

Don Stacks, a communications professor emeritus at the University of Miami, was one of the reviewers on that document. He called it “crazy” for Florida officials to release coronavirus numbers so late at night with little explanation.

“Every time you add something more to the news without explaining what’s going on before, or sitting down and dealing with it, it’s simply going to create more confusion,” Stacks said.

Alex Goldstein, who worked as a press secretary for former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and now runs a communications firm, said “your most critical currency in a crisis is trust and credibility.” Providing consistent updates on a schedule can build faith, he said.

“You can’t treat the public like they’re stupid. You have to respect their ability to consume scary information,” Goldstein said. “The public has to trust that we can actually get the job done.”

Times staff writers Josh Solomon, Richard Danielson and Mark Puente contributed to this report.

• • •

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

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