FL schools, businesses bracing for nationwide outbreak of coronavirus

Image shows SARS-CoV-2 (in yellow), also known as 2019-nCoV, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Rocky Mountain Laboratories, an agency of the National Institutes of Health

With fears of a nationwide outbreak of the coronavirus in the United States, Florida schools and universities are alerting students and families, holding press conferences and cancelling travel programs in response to a threat of the potentially deadly disease, known as COVID-19.

“At this point, I’m not an alarmist,” said Alberto M. Carvalho, the superintendent of Miami-Dade Public Schools, one of the largest school systems in the nation, on Wednesday.

But, Carvalho said, school officials have long monitored the spread of the virus outside the United States and are ready, if necessary, to close schools and deploy some 200,000 digital devices that students can use at home to continue their schooling. Those efforts are similar to hurricane preparations.

Miami-Dade school officials also are putting hand sanitizers in school buses, gyms and cafeterias, among other areas.

Carvalho also said two high school trips, one to Italy and another to Scotland, have been cancelled, impacting about 60 students in the district.

Likewise, Florida universities have cancelled study-abroad programs and business travel to virus-affected countries.

At Florida International University in Miami, Vice President Kenneth G. Furton announced this week that FIU has cancelled student and staff education programs in Italy, Singapore, Japan and South Korea and has called home students and staff on university business in those countries. He added that FIU wants anyone affiliated with the university who has traveled to China, Singapore, Japan, South Korea or Italy to go into a 14-day quarantine regardless of whether they feel sick.

Florida State University has cancelled all travel to China and South Korea and advises “heightened levels of alert” regarding travel to Japan, Iran, Italy and Hong Kong as well as the potential of community spread to travelers in Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. Students and staff returning from virus-affected areas are being directed to consult school authorities before returning to campus.

In Tampa, the Hillsborough County School District sent emails to families Wednesday, as well as calling parents.

The emails said:  “Although there are no cases reported in Florida, this is a rapidly evolving situation and our district is engaged with the Department of Health in Hillsborough County to review our strategies and plans in how the community would respond to a case. We will be working closely together to identify the best options should a case be detected in Hillsborough County. “

The Hillsborough district attached documents from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and gave families fact sheets in English and Spanish about the virus.

In Orange County, a tourism mecca, the Orlando-based school district is taking direction from the CDC and Florida’s health department and encouraging students, staff and families to practice personal hygiene as well as staying home if they’re sick.

The preparations are accelerating as more cases are confirmed around the world and close to home.

In a press call on Tuesday, Jerry, Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said that the China-born illness is “rapidly evolving and expanding” globally.

On the school front, Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, told the Florida Phoenix that K-12 schools have been “advised to initiate and heighten their normal hygiene and cleanliness activities and processes.”

The precautionary measures are “similar to the flu process, washing hands regularly and using antiseptic wipes,” Messina noted.

Besides schools, the virus is giving Florida’s economy the jitters.

Some Florida businesses have already been impacted by the threat of the deadly virus.

Jabil, an American worldwide manufacturing services company, which is headquartered in St. Petersburg, is one of the companies.

“As we sit today, our factories, which have been adversely impacted by the virus, are now running at roughly 65-70 percent capacity, while overall product demand remains largely as we anticipated at the beginning of the quarter,” CEO Mark Mondello said in a press release.

Florida Chamber of Commerce officials weighed in on how the deadly virus could affect Florida’s economy, during a video news release on Tuesday.

Jerry Parrish, chief economist at the Florida Chamber Foundation, said that Florida businesses should be concerned, but “it’s not anything to panic about.”

According to Parrish, industries affected most in Florida include international visitors, cruise passengers, imports/exports and manufacturing jobs.

Parrish said in a written statement: “Yesterday the Dow dropped by more than 1,000 points, companies are cutting their GDP forecasts, 30-year mortgages are at an eight-year low, manufacturers are idling their factories because of supply chain issues. All of this is having an effect on Florida’s economy, and it could continue.”

At the CDC, Messonnier also warned communities nationwide to prepare for the outbreak.

“And now is the time for businesses, hospitals, community schools, and everyday people to begin preparing as well,” she said.

“It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” Messonnier said during the Tuesday call.

Messonnier added: “These are practical measures that can help limit exposure by reducing exposure in community settings.  Students in smaller groups or in a severe pandemic, closing schools and using internet-based teleschooling to continue education.”

Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Health has updated its webpage on coronavirus with a chart listing confirmed cases — but still won’t include people being tested for the virus. Thus far, no confirmed cases have been reported in Florida.

Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees has said that his department is fully engaged and has established an “incident management team” and hosts “weekly calls with state health partners.”