Gov. Ron DeSantis went before cameras Thursday to assure Floridians his administration is taking action to protect the public from the threat of coronavirus.
The Governor and Surgeon General Scott Rivkees say there are no confirmed cases of the disease, now called COVID-19, in the state. But they won’t say how many people have been tested for the disease, how many people are self-isolating in case they show symptoms and where in the state those people are located.
The illness, which originated in China, has infected more than 83,000 people globally and killed more than 2,800, according to the World Health Organization. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the immediate health risk of infection from the coronavirus is low in the U.S. but to expect more cases.
DeSantis says the state has been monitoring people for the disease and everyone who has been tested has been negative. The state has created a webpage to share information, but the Governor said state law bars him from giving the public more information.
“I actually wanted to give all the numbers, but they pointed me to the regulation and the statute that said you can’t list all the numbers,” DeSantis said. “Rivkees and their team have looked at it and they’ve said that that’s the way to go.”
He added, “If that were to change, then, obviously, Dr. Rivkees and my administration would want to let people know that ASAP.”
Rivkees clarified his interpretation of the law. For the state to share such information, the virus must be considered “highly infectious” and there must be a risk of spread. He said because there are no current cases in Florida, coronavirus is only considered “moderately infectious” and there is a small risk of it spreading without anyone already being sick.
“If there are individual cases or linked cases, our strategy will be to make sure these individuals first have the medical care they need. And that they are isolated so they cannot transmit this virus to others,” Rivkees said. “However, if there are multiple other unlinked cases where there appears to be widespread COVID-19, community-based strategies will be implemented, and this will involve avoiding group activities and group meetings.”
Democratic Sens. Jose Javier Rodriguez and Victor Torres say that interpretation of the statue is wrong. Rodriguez says if the administration doesn’t back off from their position over the weekend and release the aggregate data, they will introduce an amendment Monday to the Department of Health legislative package to clarify the statute.
“Treating this as other jurisdictions have, where they don’t share information, they try to manage it internally and try to put on a face that everything is fine, that doesn’t shore up confidence,” Rodriguez said.
“Now again, our position is that state statute does not need to be clarified. This is a new interpretation and an incorrect interpretation of our state statute, the one that deals with public information.”
U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy issued a statement after DeSantis’ press conference also hitting him on the lack of transparency. She recently held a roundtable to discuss preparing and responding to possible cases of coronavirus.
“I was disappointed that at today’s briefing state officials failed to be forthcoming with the public about suspected cases in Florida,” she said. “As a top tourist destination and home to many vulnerable seniors, Florida is uniquely at risk from the threat of this illness.”
Rivkees said the mortality rate is 2%, higher than the flu mortality rate, which has already killed about 14,000 people nationwide. However, 80% of the cases are likely to be mild, with most severe cases affecting mostly the very young, the very old and those with underlying medical conditions.
Currently, Florida has no way to test for the disease in the state. Florida and other states were given kits by the federal government so local hospitals and county health departments could perform those tests. But those kits were faulty. So samples must be sent to the CDC, which can take up to five days for results.
The federal government is barring foreigners who have visited China within the past 14 days from entering the U.S. DeSantis said all flights with Americans returning from China are being directed to 11 international airports, none of which are in Florida. Passengers on flights from the Hubei province of China, where cases of the coronavirus are especially concentrated, are required to be isolated for two weeks at a federal facility. Everyone else flying in from China will receive a health screening, but they are also asked to “self-isolate” for 14 days and are contacted by their local Florida Department of Health office for monitoring.
As of Thursday, 60 confirmed cases of COVID-19 had been reported in the U.S.
A vaccine for the deadly virus isn’t expected to be ready for at least 18 months, according to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
DeSantis’ news conference came after President Donald Trump on Wednesday night named Vice President Mike Pence the point person for the Trump administration on the coronavirus. The White House unveiled a $2.5 billion plan, including $1.8 billion in new funds, to fight COVID-19. More than $1 billion would be targeted to the development of a vaccine.
Though the DeSantis administration is encouraging people to obtain flu shots and to get tested for COVID-19 if they are worried, the state is not providing free access or deferring costs of the tests.
Florida did not expand Medicaid to low-income childless adults as allowed under the federal Affordable Care Act. An estimated 13% of the population in 2019 was uninsured, according to the most recent America’s Health Ranking report.
The Miami Herald this week reported a person who had traveled to China returned to Florida and worried that he may have contracted the virus. He went to Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital for a test and was told he would first need a CT scan. He ultimately changed course, requesting that he first be tested for influenza. The influenza test was positive, and he subsequently received a $3,270 bill of which about $1,800 was covered by his insurance policy.
For people who are tested and self-quarantined and unable to work, DeSantis said there are “programs in place to mitigate some of those costs.”
When Rivkees was asked to comment about the programs, he said the state would work with people under quarantine “to make sure that they have the health care they will need.”
Coronavirus can be spread by droplets that are sprayed when people sneeze or cough or through contact such as shaking hands. John Sinnott, a Tampa General Hospital doctor and University of South Florida faculty member, told state lawmakers this month he believes the virus also could be airborne, similar to tuberculosis.
Sinnott said one person infected with coronavirus could spread it to an average of 2.2 people. Moreover, about 1.8 percent of the people infected with coronavirus will die.
Such a potential spread has caused concerns among Florida school districts.
Alberto Carvalho, Superintendent of the Miami-Dade County public schools, said Wednesday that he is prepared, if necessary, to close schools and to provide students with electronic devices so they can learn at home.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this post.