Florida officials express caution -- not panic -- over virus
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attempted to reassure his state Thursday that health officials are deep into preparations to stave off a potential outbreak of a new virus that has killed thousands worldwide, saying there were no confirmed cases — yet — of infections from COVID-19.
“There are still no cases of coronavirus in Florida. This is a rapidly evolving situation,” the governor said during a news conference at the state Capitol.
“Obviously, if there is — and hopefully we don’t have — any identified cases, it is something we would notify the public about,” DeSantis told reporters.
But despite assurances, there were growing fears about the further spread of the virus amid criticism that state officials were not being adequately forthcoming about any suspected cases in Florida.
The state’s surgeon general, Dr. Scott Rivkees, declined to confirm if any suspected cases have been investigated in the state, even if they did not turn out positive for the virus. He and the governor cited state laws for withholding any statistical information.
The state does not yet have the proper equipment to perform its own tests for the virus and is sending potential cases to the Centers for Disease Control Atlanta.
Meanwhile, flights originating from China aren’t being allowed to land at any Florida airports, the governor said. Such flights are being diverted to 11 other airports across the country, where passengers can be screened.
“The state of Florida is fully committed to do everything we can to prepare for and respond to COVID-19,” Rivkees said.
While noting that the current risk of contracting the virus remains low, Rivkees said Florida’s Department of Health, other agencies and the medical community “stand ready to protect and care for the public.”
The assurances from the Republican governor and state health officials, however, did not satisfy some Democrats. On Thursday, it quickly erupted into a political issue.
U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, who represents the Orlando area, called for more transparency.
“I was disappointed that at today’s briefing, state officials failed to be forthcoming with the public about suspected cases in Florida,” she said in a statement.
“As a top tourist destination and home to many vulnerable seniors, Florida is uniquely at risk from the threat of this illness,” she said after the governor’s news conference.
During their own news conference in Tallahassee, Democratic state lawmakers pushed DeSantis to release more information.
“Why are they waiting for a confirmed case to share aggregate data?” asked state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, who wants state health officials to release information about the number of tests that have already been conducted.
“The management of public information from the governor’s office and the Department of Public Health is not helping us as Floridians as we are already preparing for COVID-19,” Rodriguez said. “No one is inciting anyone to panic,” he said later, but the lack of information “may end up doing the opposite.”
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump downplayed the threat to Americans, saying the U.S is “very, very ready,” even as health officials expressed alarm over the now-global spread of the virus known as COVID-19.
The virus has killed thousands in China, where it originated, and there are mounting worries as the number of deaths and infections also grows in Europe and elsewhere.
The chief economist for the Florida Chamber, Jerry Parrish, said earlier this week that the state should be “concerned but not panicked” about the threat to the Florida economy.
The tourism industry, he said, could be particularly vulnerable.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel reported Wednesday that a Miami-based cruise ship was in limbo for hours because Jamaican authorities denied permission to allow passengers off the ship while authorities reviewed medical records. The review was prompted by concerns that one of the ship’s crew members could have been infected.
In a statement, MSC Cruise said the fears were unfounded.
Meanwhile, some Florida colleges and universities were suspending trips abroad.
The University of Central Florida said Thursday it was canceling study abroad programs to China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Mongolia, and were looking for study-abroad alternatives.
Few cases have been reported in the United States, but federal health officials say they expect more.
The latest U.S. infection was reported in Northern California, where a patient was under special protection “because of an undiagnosed and suspected viral condition.” The case is especially perplexing because the patient had not traveled abroad and had no apparent contact with another known case, according to California officials.
The California case brings the total number infected in the United States to 60. Most of those cases are people evacuated from outbreak zones.
More than 81,000 cases of COVID-19 have occurred since the new virus emerged in China.
Associated Press reporter Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida, contributed to this report.