As U.S. fatalities from the new coronavirus strain stack up — and as more people in Florida test positive for COVID-19 — planning is in high gear in South Florida as fears mount that an outbreak of the deadly pathogen could happen here.
Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday announced five more Florida residents have tested positive for the virus, more than doubling the number of cases of infection if these latest cases are confirmed. DeSantis told reporters late Thursday morning that all five Floridians had recently traveled to China.
Health authorities as well as county and local officials have moved quickly to assess the situation in their areas and address public concern.
Florida Department of Health Palm Beach spokesman Alexander Shaw early Thursday told New Times the agency "is working with all our state, federal, and local public health partners to ensure the latest CDC and WHO guidance and recommendations are disseminated and implemented."
Dr. Alina Alonso, Palm Beach County’s health director, spoke at a school board meeting Wednesday. She confirmed there were "zero confirmed cases" in Palm Beach County and stressed that while everyone should take precautions, residents and families don't need to curtail plans and activities.
Addressing questions from school board members about whether to cancel student field trips and what to do about the masses of people gathering on public school campuses on March 17 to vote, Alonso said the best approach at the moment is to "stay calm."
The presidential primary and local elections in March will not present significant risk, she said, especially since no classes will be held on the 17th and no students will be on campus.
Alonso added, "I certainly hope that every single person that’s hearing this is going to vote."
Florida has three coronavirus cases — one in Sarasota and two in Tampa, one of which is confirmed and the other "presumptively positive."
The first two cases confirmed in the Sunshine State involve a Sarasota man in his 60s and a woman in her 20s from the Tampa area. The bay-area patient had recently traveled to Italy, where a relatively large outbreak of the virus is active. Both patients are in stable condition and both are in isolation until they are cleared, according to news reports.
State health officials announced the third case late Tuesday. The infected woman is the sister of the Tampa patient and is currently recovering in home quarantine.
Another five confirmed coronavirus cases involve Florida residents who aren't currently in the state.
Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday said one of these five cases involves a Florida resident under a self-quarantine in Washington State, where had recently returned to America following a trip to Asia.
Washington saw its death toll from the virus rise to 10 on Wednesday, as state officials have confirmed 45 cases as of early Thursday. At least six of the deaths in Washington center around a nursing home in suburban Seattle.
Though caution is advised, Shaw stresses, "The CDC states that the risk to the general public in the U.S. remains low." He said residents can find "the best and most up-to-date information about COVID-19 in Florida" at floridahealth.gov/COVID-19. The site includes updated tallies of confirmed cases and the number of people being monitored for infection.
Check trusted, credible news sources for updated U.S. and world maps tracking the outbreak. The New York Times and Washington Post have timely updates, news reports, and factual, in-depth information about the virus.
If you have symptoms of the virus, state officials say you should contact your county health department and seek immediate treatment from a doctor, urgent care center, or hospital. To prevent further spread of the virus, inform your healthcare providers before you visit so they can try to protect other patients and health care staff.
State health officials say patients should disclose their travel histories to their doctors. The state agency recently expanded its guidelines so coronavirus testing will be done on more patients. Previously, testing was done primarily on patients who had traveled to China, Italy, and South Korea, where there are large outbreaks of COVID-19. Since Friday, the state health department has been urging doctors to take samples from all patients with respiratory infections that can't be readily chalked up to the common cold or flu.
The apprehension over COVID-19 is understandable: The novel viral strain is popping up in countries across the globe, and its fatality rate is an estimated 20 times higher than the flu.
Local officials with the state health department said the area's travel hubs — Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Port Everglades, and Broward County Transit buses — are being monitored and cleaned regularly.
Broward Schools superintendent Robert Runcie said during a school board meeting Tuesday the district is ramping up precautions and planning related to the virus. At the meeting, district officials announced all student field trips abroad are cancelled until further notice.
Schools are stocking up on soap, tissues, and other supplies, and officials are looking to shift school work online as they plan for the possibility of quarantines.
Runcie said the district is monitoring the situation and updating planning daily and "making sure that we continue to keep our parents and community informed of where we are."
Local officials in both counties urge parents to keep sick children out of school and anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms — or anyone living with someone experiencing those symptoms — should stay home.
So far, more than 92,000 people have been infected worldwide, with the number of deaths now exceeding 3,300. China has reported more than 80,000 cases of the virus, which have been linked to nearly 3,000 deaths. South Korea and Italy had reported upward of 4,000 and 1,700 cases, respectively, as of Sunday.
Case counts in the U.S. are still relatively low, numbering 158 across 17 states. But there is cause for concern as Califormia declared a state of emergency early Thursday amid fears that more than 3,500 passengers and crew on a cruise ship docked off the coast of San Francisco were exposed to COVID-19 from a passenger who recently died.
In California, the number of cases jumped to 54 by early Thursday from the 27 cases being reported on Tuesday. Thirteen cases have been confirmed in New York — one of them a man who recently traveled to Miami.
DeSantis said state officials learned of the infected man's travel in Florida through news reports — not from New York state health officials.
"Now our Department of Health is working with New York officials on doing what you do — go tracing the contacts and trying to piece those together as part of the investigation," DeSantis told reporters Tuesday.
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Normally, the CDC's State Coordination Task Force oversees public health response efforts nationwide. Vice President Mike Pence, charged with overseeing the national response to the virus outbreak, on Monday held the Trump administration's first joint meeting with governors and state public health officials to begin coordination efforts.
The Florida Health Department's website reported nearly 250 people statewide were under public health monitoring as of Tuesday and that there were 16 pending test results. DeSantis said efforts were underway to coordinate with officials from other states about the possibility of infected patients elsewhere having recently traveled in Florida.
The CDC advises frequent hand-washing as the No. 1 way to avoid catching and spreading coronavirus. Cough and sneeze using tissue (or even shirt sleeves) and, in general, avoid going to places where lots of people gather — whether that's sports events or concerts or conferences. Self-isolation for a period of two weeks is advised for anyone who's recently traveled abroad, especially to China, Italy, or South Korea.
Miami New Times' Izzy Kapnick contributed to this report.