Health authorities in Polk County say they are prepared to cope with possible infections of COVID-19. County hospitals ready to test and treat as coronavirus outbreak reaches Florida.
LAKELAND — Now that the novel coronavirus has been confirmed in a bordering county, health authorities, school officials and others in Polk County are taking an increasingly vigilant approach.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the state’s first two cases at a news conference Monday, with one patient in Hillsborough County and one in Manatee County.
At Lakeland Regional Health, arriving patients are screened for fever, cough and shortness of breath and asked about recent travel to countries with a community spread of the disease, said Dr. Daniel Haight, vice president of community health and medical director of infection prevention.
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If the screening raises concerns, the patient is given a mask and frequent hand hygiene is made, Haight said by email in response to questions from The Ledger. Any patient suspected of infection with COVID-19 will be placed in a room with special air filtration in a part of the hospital with controlled entrances, Haight said.
The hospital can test for such common infections as the flu, as well as other viruses that cause fever and cough, Haight said.
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“This is an important step since it is unlikely for a person to have COVID-19 if they have a positive test for the flu,” Haight said by email. “In general, we do not recommend these tests if a person is mildly ill. If the patient does not have a common illness but does have risk factors for COVID-19, we request approval from the local health department to collect specimens to send to the state lab for testing.”
If the health department approves, samples of a patient’s nasal fluid and saliva would be collected and sent to the Florida Department of Health laboratory in Tampa, Haight said. Results could take one or two days.
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BayCare Health Systems, which operates hospitals in Winter Haven and Bartow, will follow guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in evaluating any patients showing possible signs of the respiratory infection officially called COVID-19, spokeswoman Vjollca “Viola” Hysenlika said.
“Because COVID-19 symptoms are similar to many other respiratory infections, such as the flu, healthcare providers arrive at a possible diagnosis by ruling out other factors and also by asking the patient about recent travel or exposure to someone who has recently traveled,” Hysenlika said by email.
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Anyone who shows the symptoms Haight described should call their local healthcare provider or hospital and ask how best to be evaluated. He warned against going to the doctor’s office or hospital without calling first, as recommendations will change over time.
National news reports suggest that Americans have been buying all available protective masks in stores, creating concerns about a shortage of masks in health facilities, where they are truly needed. Store employees at a Lowe’s and a Walgreens in Lakeland contacted by The Ledger said their stores were sold out of masks.
BayCare Health Systems has an adequate supply of masks, Hysenlika said, but has seen a “tightening in the supply chain.”
Asked about extra precautions against COVID-19, Hysenlika said BayCare has been working for weeks to ensure it has adequate supplies and to train team members on how to screen patients and how to isolate and care for anyone infected with the disease.
Dr. Joy Jackson, director of the Polk County Health Department, was not available for an interview Monday. The department did not respond by The Ledger’s deadline to a list of provided questions.
The main page of the department’s website announced, “Important Update on COVID-19 cases in Florida,” along with a link to information from the Florida Department of Health. It was updated Monday with the report of positive tests for COVID-19 in Hillsborough and Manatee counties.
Polk County Public Schools issued a message to parents and staff last week and created a webpage with precautions and links to resources.
In the message, district officials said they are working closely with local, state and federal agencies, including the Florida Department of Health in Polk County, to monitor developments related to both coronavirus and the flu. No changes have been made to school schedules.
The message said school nurses will carefully evaluate the health of students and staff members. It also described the daily routines of custodians, which include disinfecting surfaces that are frequently touched, such as doorknobs, push plates and hand rails.
Legoland Florida Resort, Polk County’s largest tourism attraction, has not taken any steps to limit admissions to the Winter Haven theme park.
“We have restricted employee travel to higher risk countries, implemented enhanced cleaning regimes at our attractions and informed our teams of coronavirus symptoms as well as the importance of good hygiene practices,” Julie Estrada, a spokeswoman for Merlin Entertainments, Legoland’s corporate owner, said by email. “Like many businesses, we continue to monitor the situation closely and are in regular contact with local authorities so we may respond quickly to any developments.”
Mark Jackson, director of Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing, said Monday that he has detected no decline in visits to Polk County.
Jackson noted that March is the busiest month for tourism in the county, with 11 sports events taking place at the moment. Those include the RussMatt Central Florida Invitational, a baseball tournament that draws some 250 college teams, a softball tournament in Bartow and a lacrosse tournament in Davenport.
If anything, Jackson said, local officials are struggling to find hotel rooms for all of the out-of-county participants in those events.
Jackson said he has heard about cancellations of industry conventions in some places, but he noted that convention business ranks behind leisure travel and sports events in Polk County.
Northeast Polk County abounds with vacation rental homes, and many companies cater to international visitors, mostly from the United Kingdom. Jackson said he hadn’t heard of any decline in bookings.
He noted that China, the site of the original COVID-19 outbreak, produces only about 3% of annual tourist visits to the United States and estimated the figure is even lower for Polk County.
Balmoral Resort Florida, a sports-oriented vacation home community in Haines City, relies heavily on international visitors. As of Monday, owner Garrett Kenny said he hadn’t seen a rash of cancellations.
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“I think it’s too early,” Kenny said. “To be fair, even like myself, I wasn’t as concerned up until this weekend. You’re of the opinion, ‘It’s over there,’ but now to see it pop up in the States. I do think the United States is well prepared and can deal with something like this, but it’s the perception of the traveler.”
Orlando International does not offer direct air service to China, and the airport has not been affected by the illness, spokeswoman Caitlin Dineen said. Flights from China are being routed to 11 airports, none of them in Florida.
The airport’s emergency management leaders have met with officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, local health officials, emergency medical services agencies, law enforcement and federal partners to review the airport’s emergency health plans, according to a statement Dineen sent The Ledger.
Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, was the only one of the three U.S. House of Representatives members who responded to a request for comment Monday.
“I applaud Gov. DeSantis for declaring a state of emergency in the State of Florida,” a statement from Spano said. “This declaration will further the working relationship between the federal and state government, and provide Florida the necessary funding to combat the coronavirus. Congress remains fully engaged and is working with the Trump Administration on funding to contain the coronavirus.”
Gary White can be reached at email@example.com or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.
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