Why haven’t FL officials told the public that a patient was tested for coronavirus at a South FL hospital?

2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV). Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At Surgeon General Scott Rivkees’ confirmation hearing Tuesday, state senators asked the doctor about the deadly coronavirus that has spread to the United States from China.

“Are we prepared and are you prepared for what could be a coronavirus outbreak in Florida?” State Sen. Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat, asked Rivkees.

Florida's surgeon general
Florida’s new surgeon general. Credit: University of Florida

Rivkees, the state’s chief health official, answered by saying that the health department has “engaged literally hundreds of individuals” and is working with federal health agencies.

What he didn’t say was that the department thus far hasn’t released information on testing or potential cases of the coronavirus in Florida, leaving the public out of the loop.

The health department has provided information about the virus, but sends people to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website for more information.

Late Wednesday, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel wrote that a patient was tested for the coronavirus at a South Florida hospital.

“The public remains in the dark,” the headline stated.

The story said: “A potential case of coronavirus disrupted emergency operations at a Hollywood hospital on Friday, but nearly a week later, the Florida health department won’t confirm even that a person was tested.

The incident appeared significant: hospital workers told at least one fire-rescue department not to bring anyone to Memorial Regional Hospital’s emergency room, and another department offered to wear masks.”

The Florida Phoenix contacted Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, where a patient reportedly was tested. But communications staff there didn’t comment. They told the Phoenix to contact the Florida Health Department.

The Phoenix also contacted the health department about the potential case. The communications staff has not responded as of yet.

The Sun-Sentinel story said that “Florida Department of Health’s Scott Rivkees would not be interviewed, and a spokesman only provided links to the CDC website.”

Brad Dalton, the health department’s communications staffer, told the Sun-Sentinel that “We’ve kicked it around and bounced it off leadership and we hope to have something soon.

“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.”

On its website, the Florida Department of Health mentions that it’s “working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to closely monitor the current outbreak of 2019 novel coronavirus and is actively working to ensure that the most up-to-date CDC guidance is quickly and accurately disseminated to local partners.”

Rivkees has been making the rounds of Senate committees, as part of his confirmation process as Surgeon General and head of the Department of Health.

At Tuesday’s committee meeting on the confirmation, a Tampa doctor questioned Rivkees’ qualifications in the key area of public health administration.

Rivkees last year was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, but after media scrutiny, his confirmation was postponed. The confirmation process is now ongoing.

State Sen. Darryl Rouson, a Democrat representing parts of Pinellas and Hillsborough, was at the Tuesday confirmation hearing for Rivkees.

Rouson said Rivkees told senators that he has sufficient staff to handle a coronavirus outbreak.

After hearing about the potential South Florida case from the Phoenix, Rouson said he would reach out to the health department to see what’s going on.

Issac Morgan
Issac Morgan is a 2009 graduate of Florida A&M University's School of Journalism, and a proud native of Tallahassee. He has covered city council and community events at the Gadsden County Times, worked as a sports news assistant at the Tallahassee Democrat, a communications specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and as a proofreader at the Florida Law Weekly.
Diane Rado
Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.