UPDATED: Attorneys Say Florida Leaders are Choosing Not to Disclose Coronavirus Info

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

THURSDAY 8:45 P.M. UPDATE:

Florida health officials Thursday said state law prevents them from revealing information to the public about suspected cases of coronavirus, even though the state regularly revealed such information during the Zika crisis in 2017.

“We are unable to comment on potential coronavirus cases because of a state statute that prohibits us from doing so,” says Alberto Moscoso, communications director for the Florida Department of Health.

However, three health lawyers who reviewed the law for the South Florida Sun Sentinel, say the state can indeed release that information if it chooses to do so. The statute explains information from disease reports is exempt from public records laws and should be made public when necessary in order to protect public health “due to the highly infectious nature of the disease.”

“It’s a judgment call whether or not it’s necessary to the public health to release that information,” says Timothy Monaghan, a health care attorney with Shutts & Bowen in West Palm Beach. “Public officials may argue we are trying to avoid panic, but I think most people would say we need to know if it’s here in Florida so we can take precautions.”

Meanwhile, Joey Zumpano, founder and managing shareholder of health law firm Zumpano Patricios, agrees that withholding information from the public is a choice the state is making arbitrarily.

“Clearly what the statutory framework is intending to achieve is a balance between patient privacy and public health,” he says. “The statute leaves the judgment to the state. But the status of a highly contagious public health threat may be fundamental to any public health efforts centered on prevention.”

“There are no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Florida,” state Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees said in a written statement. “However, if any were to arise, we are prepared to contain this new infection, help any individuals sickened by the virus and keep Florida safe.”

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ORIGINAL STORY:

A possible case of coronavirus here in South Florida recently affected emergency operations at a hospital, according to reports.

Workers at Memorial Regional Hospital in Broward allegedly told at least one fire-rescue department not to bring anyone to their emergency room.

Dr. Bindu Mayi, an infectious disease specialist and professor of microbiology at Nova Southeastern University, says she had heard about the potential Hollywood case from medical colleagues.

“If there is a local case, it is something we [the public] should all be made aware of,” Mayi says. “The absence of information becomes conjecture and that’s a dicey thing. If there is a local case, people who are immune-suppressed may need to be more discerning about not being in large crowds or gathering where don’t know who has been exposed to what.”

Memorial Regional Hospital officials would not comment on the status of the woman who arrived last Friday afternoon in their emergency room. Hospital spokeswoman Kerting Baldwin explains, “There are no confirmed cases of coronavirus at Memorial.”

Hollywood Fire Rescue was informed of the situation in the emergency room. “At one point we offered to wear masks, but that was overkill because the patient suspected of coronavirus was already in isolation,” says Patrick Moore, division chief of operations at Hollywood Fire Rescue.

Amanda Conwell, a spokesperson for the Pembroke Pines Police Department, says her staff was told for a brief time Friday evening not to transport anyone to Memorial until a proper quarantine was established. She adds that the action was based on information they had and did not indicate that there was a confirmed case within the county.

Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Health will not comment on the possible case.

State health officials explain they are concerned about creating panic or compromising patient privacy by disclosing too much information. They may use their website to inform the public about pending cases and results.

“We’ve kicked it around and bounced it off leadership and we hope to have something soon,” says Brad Dalton, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Health. “You don’t want to scare people, and you want to make sure when information gets out there it’s what does the public the most good.”

The number of confirmed cases in the U.S. stood at 12 on Wednesday, as a new case was reported in Wisconsin.

Tests were pending on 76 possible coronavirus cases across the country as of Wednesday. The CDC does not indicate where in the United States those tests have been conducted, although at least some of them have come from Florida.

A week ago, Gov. Ron DeSantis said during a visit to Boca Raton that all tests for coronavirus in our state were sent to the CDC in Atlanta and had come back negative.

South Florida hospitals say that staff from the health department have met with them in order to ensure they are properly screening and preparing for a possible coronavirus case here.

Local doctors also believe it is only a matter of time before coronavirus reaches Florida.

“We know we are at high risk with international travelers coming to our area,” says Dr. Ivan Gonzalez, a pediatric infectious disease doctor at Jackson Memorial and UM Health. “A lot of this is going to rely on self-reporting — awareness and education are key.”

A quarantine station at Miami International Airport that is staffed by the CDC is screening international passengers flying into the region.

Florida’s Department of Health says it is unclear when and where tests kits will be widely available in Florida.

The virus originated in Wuhan, China. It has spread to 28 countries. There are more than 24,000 confirmed cases in China alone.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared coronavirus a public health emergency, imposing a mandatory quarantine for any citizen who had traveled to China’s Hubei province during the previous two weeks.

In addition, planes carrying U.S. citizens who have recently been in China are only allowed to land at one of 11 designated airports, none of which are in Florida. As of Wednesday, more than 500 people have died as a result of the virus.

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