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Florida health officials take a back seat to CDC in warning about coronavirus

John Kennedy USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau
Walton Sun

TALLAHASSEE – Florida health officials are letting the federal government lead the way in warning the public about the growing threat posed by the deadly coronavirus, but some leaders are pushing for stepped-up action in a state that is a magnet for travelers.

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott said Friday that he has written to seaport and airport managers, calling for them to heighten their vigilance in what the World Health Organization terms a global public health emergency.

The virus has killed more than 100 people and sickened thousands. But while the cases are mostly concentrated in China, it has been detected in 16 other countries, including at least six cases in the U.S., although none in Florida.

“While all of the cases are still travel-related, we must take every precaution,” Scott said in his letter to Florida seaports and airports. “Just like we did in Florida to curb the spread of the Ebola and Zika viruses, we must take action to make every resource available to stop the disease and keep Americans healthy.”

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When asked for details on actions it has taken, the Florida Department of Health responded with a statement saying it is working with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to monitor the respiratory virus. It added that the agency’s guidance is distributed to local health units across Florida.

“The department is coordinating closely with our local partners to investigate, confirm, contain and report any suspected cases, should they occur,” the statement concluded.

Jessie Werner, spokeswoman for the Florida Ports Council, said the state’s seaports are “following protocol put in place,” primarily by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, in cooperation with state and local officials.

“We feel that the ports are mainly in a support role,” she added.

Florida colleges and universities, where illnesses spread easily and where many also have students and staff traveling to and from China, have taken an aggressive stance toward getting out word on what to watch for.

Major hospitals in Florida’s big cities also say they are ready to isolate and treat any patients suspected of having contracted the illness.

Symptoms of coronavirus may be flu-like, including fever, coughing and difficulty breathing. Person-to-person spreading can occur, although researchers are unclear precisely how coronavirus is transmitted and how easily it spreads between people.

The virus is believed to have jumped to humans from wild animal markets in the Chinese industrial city of Wuhan, where snakes, porcupines and other animals are kept alive in small cages while waiting to be sold.

The U.S. State Department has warned against all travel to China, due to the virus.

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“We tend to be more reactive than proactive when it comes to these kinds of viral outbreaks,” said John Lednicky, a microbiologist at the University of Florida who has studied coronavirus. “But at this point, it’s hard for us to predict what’s going to happen with this.”

President Trump so far hasn’t said much about the global outbreak. The White House, however, this week did announce that it had formed a Wuhan coronavirus task force, headed by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also hasn’t seemed overly concerned about the risk to Florida, although this week he called the outbreak a “significant public health threat.”

Meanwhile, concerns about the virus are having an effect in Florida.

Thirty students and three teachers at The Benjamin School in Palm Beach Gardens were briefly not allowed to return to school after they came back from a conference at Yale University where a student from China was being tested for coronavirus.

Miami-based cruise ship companies also have canceled several voyages they have between Chinese cities.

And there are reports that surgical masks used to prevent the spread of disease are selling out in parts of South Florida, where thousands of people are expected to converge for Sunday’s Super Bowl.