BY CHRISTINE SEXTON
NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
TALLAHASSEE – Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday reiterated that the risk of the novel coronavirus in Florida “remains low,” despite acknowledging that two residents have tested positive and that the state is anticipating more cases in the future.
As of Monday, a total of 23 people had been tested in Florida for the virus, known as COVID-19, and the state was awaiting test results on another 18 people.
“We are anticipating there will be additional positive tests,” DeSantis told reporters in Tampa outside a Department of Health testing laboratory, while stressing that overall, “I would just tell people the risk remains low.”
The governor said he had been in contact with legislative leaders to make sure the Department of Health has the resources, including “any immediate funding it may need,” to protect public health and contain the virus.
“I have spoken with both Senate President Bill Galvano and (House) Speaker Jose Oliva,” the governor said adding, “and they were receptive to (working) with my office to make sure the needs are met.”
Most of the health department’s needs are related to staffing, DeSantis said.
Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, DeSantis recommended reducing the Department of Health staff by 79 people in his proposed budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, which begins July 1. Those positions, though, are in the Children’s Medical Services program, a unit that focuses on treating children with complex medical needs, and not in county health departments.
Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta said the Senate’s proposed spending plan mirrors the department reductions recommended by the governor. She said Galvano, R-Bradenton, would support any additional funding that is necessary.
The House in its proposed 2020-2021 budget recommended eliminating more than 500 Department of Health positions. Fred Piccolo, a House spokesman, did not immediately return a request for comment about the staffing reductions.
The House and Senate are expected to negotiate a final budget during the next week.
Monday’s news conference in Tampa came after Department of Health Secretary Scott Rivkees issued a public health emergency in the wake of the state’s first two coronavirus cases involving residents of Manatee and Hillsborough counties.
The Manatee County case involves a man in his 60s who has not traveled abroad to any of the countries considered hot spots for the virus. He is a patient at Doctors Hospital of Sarasota and is in isolation, according to a memo the hospital sent Sunday to some of its physicians.
“Upon recognizing the patient was a potential COVID-19 case, Doctors Hospital of Sarasota immediately and appropriately activated all protocols for handling potential COVID-19 cases, including immediate isolation,” the memo said.
Rivkees, who doubles as the state’s surgeon general, said “at the present time it is not known how this individual was exposed to COVID-19. The Florida Department of Health is working closely with this individual, his close contacts and health care providers to isolate and monitor any individuals who may have been in contact with this virus.”
Republican Congressman Vern Buchanan, who represents the Manatee County area, released a statement Monday saying that he met with Doctors Hospital Chief Executive Officer Robert Meade and others and was assured the hospital “is taking every precaution possible to limit exposure to others.”
The Hillsborough County case involves a woman in her 20s who returned from northern Italy, the site of a large outbreak of the virus. DeSantis said the woman had a roommate while abroad but said the roommate was not a state resident and that he didn’t have any additional details.
The Hillsborough County woman is isolated at home, Rivkees said.
Florida officials grappled with the two cases as Washington state announced Monday that it has had six deaths from the coronavirus. Washington on Saturday became the first state to announce a death. It confirmed Sunday night that a second person, a man in his 70 who lived in a nursing home near Seattle, had died.
The Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, which licenses nursing homes and assisted living facilities, has been asked to work with long-term care facilities to take steps to ensure the safety of residents.
The Department of Health also announced Saturday that three state laboratories are able to test for the virus, and results are available in 24 to 48 hours. Prior to that, the state had to send samples to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and wait three to five days for the test results.
The coronavirus has drawn worldwide concern in recent weeks. The CDC said on its webpage that the U.S. had 43 total confirmed and “presumptive” positive cases of coronavirus in 10 states. Twenty-six of the cases had been transmitted person to person.
Another 48 cases involve Americans who have been repatriated into the country, including 45 people from a Diamond Princess cruise ship.
The World Health Organization, meanwhile, reported 87,137 confirmed cases as of Sunday. WHO also reported that 2,977 people had died from the virus. Most of those deaths, 2,873, were in China, where the virus started.
No vaccine exists for COVID-19, and federal health officials say a vaccine won’t be ready for another year to 18 months.