TAMPA — Florida officials tried to reassure residents Monday that the risk posed by a new strain of coronavirus remained low, despite revelations that two people had become the first in the state to test positive for the virus.
Florida officials said Sunday they were declaring a public health emergency after announcing two cases, a woman in her 20s who recently returned from Italy and a man in his 60s who had not traveled to any countries of concern.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a news conference Monday in Tampa that the state was doing all it could to respond to the growing health crisis, and that he was seeking emergency funding from state lawmakers to help combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
“Despite these cases, the overall threat to the public remains low,” the governor said. “With that said, we do anticipate that more will test positive.”
State health officials said they were identifying people who had contact with the two patients now under isolation. The state Health Department said 184 people in Florida are being monitored for the disease.
Dr. Scott Rivkees, Florida’s surgeon general, said the man in his 60s had not traveled in any of the countries currently identified for restricted travel by federal authorities, including South Korea, Iran, Italy and China, where the virus originated.
“It is not known how this individual was exposed to COVID-19,” Rivkees said at the news conference. “This is a rapidly evolving situation.”
He directed anyone who has traveled to any of the high-risk countries to self-isolate for 14 days and notify public health officials. Alachua County separately on Monday afternoon issued a press release saying “it is imperative for any individuals who believe they may have been exposed to COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) to contact the Alachua County Health Department…before traveling to any physician’s office, emergency department, hospital, or urgent care center” to help limit risk.
Health officials said Sunday that samples from the two patients who tested positive for the virus in Florida were sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for confirmation. The federal agency confirmed the two cases on Monday, the state Health Department said.
Florida has three labs that can test for the virus — in Tampa, Jacksonville and Miami.
During a tour Monday of the Tampa lab on the University of South Florida campus, officials showed two beige machines that look like printers and which analyze samples from patients suspected to have the virus. A few people in white coats worked inside the quiet, cool room that housed the PCR machines, which amplify segments of DNA via the polymerase chain reaction.
For weeks, Florida health officials had declined to release information about possible infections, citing privacy concerns, but reversed themselves Friday amid mounting questions and political pressure.