Governor Ron DeSantis provides updates on COVID-19.
When the number of coronavirus deaths reached 54 in Florida on Saturday, Gov. Ron DeSantis told the state’s Surgeon General to get on the phone and send a public health alert to every Florida resident.
The message Scott Rivkees texted Saturday afternoon was a repeat of the advisory he issued Wednesday, that people 65 and older, and those with underlying medical conditions, should stay home and avoid crowds, and everyone should practice “social distancing.”
The virus has been particularly fatal for those over the age of 65. Eighty-nine percent of the deaths are people 65 and older: 35% were between the ages of 55 and 74, while people younger made up 4% of the fatalities and those over 85 were 19% of deaths.
“Protect yourself. Now is not the time to go outside. Don’t get involved in any big crowds, use this time to protect yourself,” DeSantis said in a briefing livestreamed from his conference room in the Capitol.
The number of coronavirus cases in Florida stood at 4,038 by Saturday evening, a more than fivefold increase from a week ago, when Florida reported 706 infections. The death count creeped up to 56.
DeSantis and public health officials are in a race to control the spread of the virus before it overwhelms the ability of hospitals and health care professionals to deliver care.
On Friday, he issued an executive order expanding a previous directive that airline travelers from the New York City area self-quarantine for 14 days to include people from Louisiana who enter the state on Interstate 10.
Like a time-delayed bomb, New Orleans is experiencing a coronavirus surge of more than 1,000 infections linked to the Mardi Gras celebration in February. DeSantis wants to intercept any Louisiana travelers from “seeding” the virus in Florida.
It’s about a three-hour drive from New Orleans to Pensacola, and Panhandle officials had expressed concerns to him about travelers fleeing the Bayou State and carrying the virus into Florida.
Bourbon Street is empty on March 16 as Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards orders bars, gyms and casinos to close until April 13th due to the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo: Chris Graythen, Getty Images)
“Look, we’re either trying to fight this virus or we are not,” DeSantis said of his plan that includes a checkpoint on Interstate 10 at the Alabama line and National Guard members greeting travelers from the New York City area at airports.
“We’ve done what we could with New York City and we’re also doing the same with the New Orleans hot spot,” DeSantis said.
The executive orders defined the greater New York City area and Louisiana as areas with substantial community spread. Individuals traveling from those regions must “self-declare” they came from a hot spot and agree to quarantine themselves for 14 days upon arrival in Florida. A violation could mean a 60-day jail sentence and fines of up to $500.
Signs were erected along I-10 to direct eastbound drivers to a checkpoint where they were notified about the requirement. DeSantis said he was also looking at establishing one on I-95 to catch New York travelers.
But while the Georgia Public Health Department has called Albany, 88 miles north of Tallahassee, a region with “sustained community spread” of the coronavirus, DeSantis shrugged about establishing a checkpoint on I-75. And his office did not respond to questions about U.S. 319. Both thoroughfares connect north Florida to Albany.
“Having the 10 and 95 (checkpoints) is good and I think that provides the protection,” DeSantis said when asked about other routes into the state.
The governor also called on local airport authorities and airlines to help identify travelers from hotspots. The National Guard and public health officials are stationed at major airports and DeSantis called on local airport authorities to help to screen arrivals at smaller airports like Tallahassee’s for contact with hot zones.
“I think it is in everybody’s interest that we deal with the spread we have now, try to blunt it, flatten the curve, but we don’t allow importing new infections,” DeSantis said.
In other news, DeSantis said the state will make available $100 million for local government infrastructure projects through the Rebuild Florida program. The money is part of block grants for Hurricane Irma recovery that has been redirected. The application process for the money will begin this week.
And he announced that the state has gotten a shipment of hydroxychloroquine from an Israeli supplier. The substance is part of clinical trials to combat the virus.
“Look, I’m not a doctor. I’m not telling anyone to take it or not to take it, but I do believe in a right to try … if a doctor thinks it will help,” DeSantis said. The product will be distributed to hospitals in Miami-Dade, Orange, Hillsborough and Broward counties through the Division of Emergency Management.
Despite a growing support among lawmakers to do so, DeSantis has refused to issue a statewide lockdown limiting residents’ movements like 22 other states have done in some fashion. Instead, he has preferred to let local governments decide. At least 10 counties have imposed some form of restriction, closing non-essential businesses and advising residents to stay home.
Local restrictions are tight in South Florida with orders in place in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, which report nearly half of the state’s infections.
Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have also issued directives as have Orange and Osceola counties in Central Florida. Some communities, including Leon County, have also imposed curfews, and many have threatened to enforce with arrests or fines as high as $500.
Meanwhile, seven Florida Department of Corrections employees who work at separate facilities have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the agency. The employees worked at prisons in Escambia, Marion, Miami-Dade and Pasco counties or at regional offices in Lake Butler and West Palm Beach.
And the Fraternal Order of Police said at least 12 officers and deputies across the state have tested positive and dozens more have self-quarantined as they await results. The positive results came from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Orlando and Flagler Beach.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the name of the drug, Ron DeSantis is acquiring from an Israeli supplier as part of the state’s coronavirus response effort. Hydroxychloroquine is part of clinical trials to combat the virus.
James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @CallTallahassee.
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