Lawmakers concerned: FL Surgeon General won’t disclose suspected cases of the deadly coronavirus

This is a new image of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the disease that flared in Wuhan, China, in late December and has killed nearly 2,000 people. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Rocky Mountain Lab

Amid concerns about what residents know and don’t know about the deadly coronavirus, Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees appeared before a state Senate committee Tuesday and told lawmakers he can’t provide information about suspected cases of the global virus.

“Are you saying [that] you cannot release information on persons being tested [for the coronavirus]?” asked South Florida State Sen. Lori Berman.

Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees speaks before the Senate Committee on Healthy Policy about the coronavirus. Credit: screenshot, Florida Channel

“Per statute, we cannot,” said Rivkees, Florida’s chief health officer and head of the Florida Department of Health.

Another doctor, John Sinnott, appeared at the committee and said there are suspected coronavirus cases in the state.

“So far there are no (confirmed) cases in Florida, but a few under investigation,” said Sinnott, who is chairman of the University of South Florida College of Internal Medicine.

Sinnott was asked by the committee about the number of people from Florida who’ve been to China. He answered, saying that China officials told him the number was 16,000.

It’s not clear if all those visitors could have been potentially infected. And in any case, the Florida Health Department would not disclose non-confirmed cases.

Rivkees had earlier explained in his presentation to the Senate’s Health Policy committee, that, “Per Florida statute, patient confidentiality is strictly upheld and is very highly valued by the state… and information will only be released if necessary by the state health office or designee. Thus per statute, we cannot comment on persons under investigation.”

In response to Democratic State Sen. Darryl Rouson, who represents parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, Rivkees said, “If there is a confirmed case, it will absolutely be reported to the public.”

Meanwhile, Berman continued to press Rivkees on the transparency issue.

“When we had the Zika virus (a mosquito-related virus) they were always releasing information about the number of people who were being tested,” Berman said.

Berman also grilled Rivkees about why he was absent from a round table discussion in Orlando with health experts Monday, about the potential coronavirus threat to Florida.

Rivkees said he couldn’t attend the discussion hosted by U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, an Orlando Democrat, because of an appearance regarding his confirmation process for Surgeon General.

He also said other colleagues weren’t available.

However, Rivkees said, “We’ve been fully engaged at the very beginning.”

“More than 700 members of the department are fully involved…we are having weekly calls with health partners…there are no cases of COVD-19 [coronavirus] and the risk of an outbreak is low, according to CDC (federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Sinnott, the other doctor at the committee meeting, warned lawmakers at the meeting of fake news surrounding the China-born illness, and said it affects both the upper and lower airways in humans.

There are eight strains of COVID-19 and it can spread in various ways such as droplets and orally, Sinnott said. Hand washing is the strongest defense against the virus, he added.

According to the CDC, the respiratory illness has spread to seven states –Washington, California, Wisconsin, Illinois, Arizona, Texas and Massachusetts.

As of today, the CDC has confirmed 15 cases, with news organizations reporting at least another 14.

Overall, Berman did not appear satisfied.

In fact, even before Rivkees began his presentation, Berman spoke in opposition during a debate about a bill on testing for and treatment of influenza and streptococcus. She brought up coronavirus during that time.

“I think there is an elephant in the room, and that’s the coronavirus,” Berman said.

“We just don’t know a lot about it, how it’s spread… I’m worried about if we open up the door with this threat looming, it could be really dangerous.”

“I’m very worried,” she added. “Public safety is our number one concern; we want to make sure that people don’t go in to get tested for the flu and then if they test negative, walk out of there and maybe have coronavirus.”