A Florida resident gets tested for the coronavirus on April 30, 2020.
David Santiago/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis stayed largely quiet about coronavirus in February, before issuing a state of emergency on March 1.
Documents obtained by The Miami Herald, though, show the state’s health officials had been working behind the scenes in preparation for the pandemic for weeks.
Health officials expressed concern in mid-February about the state’s ability to handle a growing pandemic.
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In February, Florida officials were largely silent about the coronavirus coming on to the state’s shores.
The state’s governor, Ron DeSantis, barely mentioned the illness to the public at all.
Behind the scenes though, public health officials were working throughout the month to prepare for the crisis, according to documents and emails obtained by The Miami Herald.
The records show a stark contrast between the findings of the state health department, and the amount of information DeSantis gave the public in the early weeks of the pandemic, according to the Herald.
As of Thursday, there were 48,675 cases of coronavirus in Florida, and 2,144 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
By February 13, the state Department of Health was aware of the public health threat and had already assembled its emergency response team to deal with coronavirus management.
Around the same time, several health officials had already started sounding alarm bells, noting their concerns about the pending pandemic.
A top Florida health official said she was fired for not manipulating coronavirus data, while Gov. Ron DeSantis has started reopening the state.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
One person who voiced his concerns was Raul Pino, director of the Department of Health’s office in Orange County, according to The Herald. In a February 15 email to an official at the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee, he said the department was stretched thin as it tried to comply with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance to monitor people who may have been exposed to the virus.
“At this point we are following 67 individuals and we must establish contact within 24 hours,” Pino wrote in the email, obtained by the Herald. “We can manage as we are — and I am moving additional resources — but, if the volume continues to increase, we may face some resistance.”
He even asked the DOH about declaring a local agency emergency in order to acquire more resources for the state’s coronavirus response, according to The Herald.
By this time, the state was already monitoring hundreds of people for possible exposures, The Herald reported.
In early days, state officials hardly discussed the virus publicly
Health department memos marked “confidential” — which were viewed by The Herald — showed that by February 18, more than 500 people in Florida had been flagged for potential exposures. Around a dozen people had been tested, all with negative results.
The state refused to release those numbers at the time, even to local hospitals and to state senators at a public hearing.
Despite the growing concern inside the health department, the DeSantis didn’t issue a serious warning to the public about the threat until his office declared a state of emergency on March 1.
Before then, the office only issued two press releases about the coronavirus: One on January 24, announcing the launch of a web page with information on coronavirus, and another on February 25 that talked about coronavirus preparedness in the state, according to The Herald.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference at the Miami Beach Convention Center in Miami Beach, Florida, U.S. April 8, 2020.
Al Diaz/Pool via REUTERS
DeSantis, a Republican, had acknowledged that the coronavirus was a “significant public health threat” during a January 27 news conference, but stayed largely quiet on the topic after that. It was only a month later, at a different news conference, that he said the state was preparing for coronavirus, but stressed that there were no confirmed cases.
The state’s health department, however, had received its first positive COVID-19 test result a day earlier, according to internal records obtained by the Herald. The CDC just hadn’t confirmed the result.
“Governor DeSantis has been strategic, clear and transparent in the development of the strategy to defeat COVID-19 in Florida,” Helen Aguirre Ferré, the governor’s communications director, said in a statement to The Herald. “By providing residents with important information, evolving as it was as we learned about this new disease, Floridians prepared well, practiced good hygiene, social distancing, and changed behaviors to mitigate the effects of COVID-19.”
Medical workers watch a formation of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds fly over Mount Sinai Medical Center as a collaborative salute to first responders and other essential personnel during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Miami, Florida, U.S., May 8, 2020.
State Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, a Democrat, told The Herald that he understood the state didn’t want to start an unnecessary panic, but said that he believes the lack of transparency was to preserve the state’s image. Florida relies on a healthy image to attract tourists, including the young people who flock to the state’s beaches for spring break.
“From the beginning, the DeSantis administration, including the DOH, appeared to approach this pandemic from the perspective of managing their image and managing the crisis from a public relations standpoint, and not from a public health standpoint,” he said. “They seem to be playing games with public records.”
Ferré, though, said that the governor’s approach had been a success.
“Our low numbers in relation to ICU beds and ventilator use speaks to the success of the public health policy implemented under the direction of Governor DeSantis [and] the important collaboration with local officials,” she told the paper.
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