Floridians are being tested for the COVID-19 virus but state officials are not disclosing details, citing federal and state privacy laws.
But the good news is “there is still no known cases of coronavirus in the state of Florida,” Gov. Ron DeSantis reported Thursday.
DeSantis, flanked by Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, state Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees and Deputy Secretary for Health Dr. Shamarial Roberson, said state health officials are prepared in the event of a COVID-19, or coronavirus, outbreak.
The governor attempted to quell mounting apprehension about the virus and blunt criticism of state officials for not disclosing details about suspected cases.
“Obviously, if there is – and, hopefully, we don’t have – any identified cases, it is something we would notify the public about,” DeSantis said, adding confidentiality laws restrict what type of information about individuals and statistical data can be disclosed.
“We strictly respect the confidentiality of persons under investigation,” he said. “I actually wanted to give all the numbers, but they pointed me to the regulation or the statute that said you can’t list all the numbers.”
DeSantis said “from the beginning of this in January, we’ve been monitoring people coming in. Obviously, HHS (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services) has said, ‘This person may have been in China,’ and all those people were monitored, and anybody who tested, tested negative, and that’s been true up to this point.”
Rivkees told the Senate Health Policy Committee on Feb. 18 that 17 Floridians had tested negative for the virus, but he would not say Thursday whether any others have been tested or investigated since then. He said confirmed cases would be posted on a webpage.
DeSantis said flights originating from China are restricted to 11 U.S. airports and have not been allowed to land in Florida since early February.
On Feb. 18, Rivkees said since Chinese flights have been restricted, the number of Chinese nationals moving through Florida – visiting, on business or passing through airports – had declined from 20,000 a day to less than 1,000 a day.
In that presentation, Rivkees said the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was sending Florida new test kits after previously provided kits produced inconclusive results or none at all.
Rivkees and DeSantis, however, said Thursday the state still is sending potential cases to Atlanta for testing.
Democratic state lawmakers and U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Orlando, demanded more clarity, if not transparency, in the state’s coronavirus preparations and prospective response.
“I was disappointed that at today’s briefing, state officials failed to be forthcoming with the public about suspected cases in Florida,” Murphy 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.”
“Why are they waiting for a confirmed case to share aggregate data?” asked Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami. “The management of public information from the Governor’s Office and the Department of Public Health is not helping us.”
The DOH’s prior practice, such as during the Zika outbreak, was to release aggregate numbers with regional breakdowns.
“No one is asking for specific facilities to be named, for specific individuals to be named, but in order to have an appropriate management of the public information, and not make things worse, we need the governor and surgeon general to back off on how they’re interpreting public information statutes,” Rodriguez said. “No one is inciting anyone to panic,” but without transparency, it “may end up doing the opposite.”
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