The governor's order prohibits anyone who recently arrived from a foreign country from visiting nursing and assisted care facilities.
TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis placed limits Wednesday on who can can visit Florida's nursing homes and other assisted living facilities, bidding to protect the state's sizeable and vulnerable elderly population from the new coronavirus.
The governor took the step by executive order as public universities shuttered classrooms in favor of distance learning, a day after the state announced eight new infections. The disease has killed two people in Florida and infected more than two dozen others overall in Florida.
The governor's order prohibits anyone who recently arrived from a foreign country from visiting nursing and assisted care facilities. DeSantis noted that most of the Florida infections from the virus, which causes the disease COVID-19, stemmed from international travel.
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“These are important efforts to mitigate the risk to our most vulnerable population to COVID-19, which is our elderly population,” DeSantis said at an afternoon news conference at the state Capitol in Tallahassee.
As a further precaution, the governor also urged elections officials to move any polling places that might be located at nursing homes or other facilities that house or care for the elderly.
Florida holds its presidential primary on Tuesday.
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The governor said Florida is learning from the state of Washington, where a Seattle-area nursing home has been the epicenter of that state's cases.
“We've seen the tragic situation in Washington state at a nursing home there,” said Mary Mayhew, Florida's secretary for the Agency for Health Care Administrations, which oversees nursing home and other assisted care facilities.
"Florida will and must take every step to prevent real and potentially fatal threats to our elderly and senior populations and those with underlying health conditions," she said.
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The governor's order prohibits anyone showing symptoms of a respiratory infection from visiting nursing homes and other facilities for older people. That prohibition also includes anyone who may have had close contact with anyone testing positive for COVID-19, as well as anyone who recently took a cruise or has been in places deemed to have a “community spread” of the virus.
The governor also disputed that Florida is among those places with “community spread" — despite an earlier assertion by a federal health official naming Florida as one such location.
During public comments Tuesday in Washington, National Institute of Health infectious disease director Anthony Fauci had included Florida in a list of four states believed to be experiencing community spread.
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DeSantis said that all cases in Florida stemmed from either foreign travel, cruise ships or close contact with an infected person, except for one case still under investigation.
Late Wednesday the Florida Department of Health announced three new positive cases of COVID-19.
A 63-year-old male New York resident who is currently in St. Johns County has tested positive. He is isolated and will continue to remain isolated until cleared by public health officials. This is a travel-related case where this individual traveled from New York to attend Daytona Bike Week in Daytona, Florida.
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A 56-year old male in Miami-Dade County has tested positive. He is isolated and will continue to remain isolated until cleared by public health officials. This is a travel-related case.
And a 70-year old male in Broward County tested as positive. He is isolated and will continue to remain isolated until cleared by public health officials. This individual attended an Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Conference in Tampa.
In addition to the 23 cases of Florida residents diagnosed in the state, five other Florida residents are self-isolating out of state after being diagnosed elsewhere. Also, a 22-year-old California woman who traveled to Italy with her sister and is self-isolating with her in Tampa.
The governor said 10 of the positive cases — including one of the fatalities, a 71-year-old man from Santa Rosa County — involved people returning from a cruise on the Nile River in Egypt.
"We are not seeing community spread, but this is something we are watching very very carefully," Florida Surgeon Gen. Scott Rivkees said at the news conference.
Meanwhile, public universities across Florida — which have some of the country's largest enrollments — will move to remote instruction effective Monday. That step is intended to minimize health and safety risks to students and staff, especially as they prepare to return from spring break.
On Tuesday night, health authorities in Florida announced eight new cases of coronavirus among people who recently traveled internationally, bringing the state's total to at least 21.
All of the new patients were 64 and older, except for one 46-year-old man.
Earlier in the week, DeSantis declared a state of emergency, saying the action would enable the state to better marshal resources and get outside help as it confronts the growing public health crisis.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, but it can cause more severe illness including pneumonia in older adults and people with existing health problems. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus within weeks.
The new patients and the others who have tested positive in Florida are self-isolating for 14 days as instructed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the health department said.