Florida joined the ranks of states battling the COVID-19 coronavirus on Sunday after Gov. Ron DeSantis announced two cases on the state’s west coast and directed his surgeon general to declare a public health emergency.
The two patients - a man in his 60s with existing health problems and a woman in her 20s who traveled to Italy - live in Manatee and Hillsborough counties.
The male patient is being treated at a hospital in Sarasota, where some staff have isolated themselves to prevent transmitting the virus. The woman is not hospitalized but has isolated herself, DeSantis said.
At a press conference in Miami Monday, DeSantis said state officials are most worried about the state’s large elderly population and anticipate more cases being confirmed in Florida.
“These assisted living facilities, the nursing homes, places that have a lot of senior citizens, particularly those who may have medical conditions, you absolutely need to take proper precautions,” he said.
Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, standing alongside DeSantis, stressed that the overall threat to the public remains low.
Read about how steps you can take to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“The risk to the general public is low. Please go about your normal business,” he said. But he also stressed being cautious and warned that people should take steps normally advised during flu season, including washing your hands, staying home if you’re sick and avoiding other sick people. He also warned that conditions could quickly change.
“We will continue to provide regular updates as this is a rapidly evolving situation,” he said and advised people to check the state Department of Health web site for frequent updates. “We are doing everything we can at the present time to prevent further spread.”
Both Florida patients were initially tested by state officials, who only began conducting tests in recent days after federal officials revised protocols. Because they were among the first tested, DeSantis said there was a delay in reporting the cases to the public.
"The CDC did not have 100 percent confidence, not that anyone did anything wrong," he said.
They were initially listed as presumptive cases, but Monday afternoon the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the results.
It’s not clear how the elderly man contracted the virus. He was hospitalized for five days for other problems before being tested for the COVID-19 virus, Rivkees said. The woman had recently traveled to Italy, which now has more than 1,000 confirmed cases. The CDC has issued a warning to only travel to the country for essential business.
DeSantis said the woman’s sister, who may have traveled with her, is being tested in California, where she lives.
Just before Monday’s press conference, DeSantis said he spoke to Vice President Mike Pence to urge him to strengthen travel measures with Italy. He said passengers on flights headed for the U.S. will now be tested before they board.
DeSantis also authorized Rivkees to declare a public health emergency Sunday after the cases were confirmed. Since January, the state has monitored 795 people suspected of being infected. Twenty-three have been tested and 184 are currently being monitored, he said.
The state of emergency will allow the state to take more aggressive steps, including monitoring and quarantining patients suspected of having the virus. Under the order, patients must be assessed within 24 hours and monitored for 14 days or until they test negative once they have been identified.
Florida was able to begin conducting its own testing two days ago when federal officials changed protocols. Before that, testing was conducted by the CDC in Atlanta. That change shortened the waiting time for results, from three to five days to less than 48 hours. Tests will now be conducted in three labs in the state: in Miami, Jacksonville and Tampa.
Across the U.S., COVID-19 has now been confirmed in 10 states, according to the CDC. The numbers of deaths climbed to five Monday, after three more patients at a Washington state nursing facility died where all the U.S. deaths have occurred.
The facility houses mostly elderly patients, heightening Florida worries about its high number of older residents.
“We don't know everything about it yet. But really, if you're younger [and] healthy, people tend to weather that,” DeSantis said. “If you have an underlying health condition or you’re elderly, those have been the two groups - not always mutually exclusive - where the virus had a big impact.”
U.S. health officials believe the virus is mostly spread by close contact - within six feet - with infected people or through coughing and sneezing. The virus may be transmitted through contact with surfaces where the virus is present, but CDC officials say this is not considered the main path of infection.
People are most contagious when they are showing symptoms, but people who are not feverish, coughing or showing other symptoms may also be transmitting the new virus, officials said. Countries with ongoing outbreaks include China, where the virus was first detected in a heartland city of 11 million, Iran, Italy, Japan and South Korea.