TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The flu remains a far deadlier illness to worry about in Florida than the coronavirus, state lawmakers were told on Tuesday.
While the coronavirus that started in China has spawned massive media attention --- and reams of misinformation --- Tampa General Hospital physician and University of South Florida faculty member John Sinnott said the state has more pressing health risks right now.
“Influenza is the elephant in the room no one is talking about,” Sinnott told members of the Senate Health Policy Committee. “It’s killing people.”
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had received reports of more than 31 million cases of influenza or influenza-type illnesses nationally between October and the first two weeks of February, Sinnott said. More than 350,000 people have been hospitalized and there have been more than 25,000 deaths.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus, or COVID-19, was first reported in Wuhan, China on Dec. 31. The World Health Organization reported 73,424 cases of the virus and 1,873 deaths as of Tuesday..
That includes 15 cases in the United States, excluding 14 Americans who were evacuated Monday from a Diamond Princess cruise ship that has been docked in Japan. Florida has not had any confirmed cases of the coronavirus, according to state health officials.
“The flu is an immediate threat to Florida’s population,” Sinnott said. “Influenza is here, and it’s a problem. We don’t want to get distracted with (the coronavirus) when we have something quite serious going on here.”
Sinnott told senators that the biggest challenges with the coronavirus are a lack of information coupled with “fake news.”
“We really don’t have all the information we want,” he said.
For instance, facing budget restraints, Sinnott said, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention three years ago closed its Office of Pandemic Response and reduced its international presence from 49 countries to 10. And in November, a program dubbed PREDICT, which focused its efforts on finding dangerous animal viruses that could infect humans, was closed, Sinnott said.
Making matters worse, the Chinese government is not allowing CDC officials into the country.
“I may be talking to you about an incredibly serious world pandemic of global nature. I may be talking to you about a localized Asian phenomenon. We do not know enough yet,” he said.
But health officials also are grappling with misinformation about the virus.
“Good luck with the fake news,” Sinnott said. “I beg you to use CDC data and WHO (World Health Organization) data on the state of Florida website.”
While influenza is a bigger threat to the state, it isn’t as deadly or as contagious as the coronavirus. Sinnott said that one person infected with the coronavirus can spread it to an average of 2.2 people, compared to influenza, where one infected person can spread it to an average of 1.8 people. Moreover, about 1.8 percent of the people infected with the coronavirus will die, compared to 0.1 percent of those with influenza.
The coronavirus can be spread by droplets that are sprayed when people sneeze or cough or through contact such as shaking hands. Sinnott, a member of a group called Global Virus Network, said he believes the virus could also be airborne, similar to tuberculosis.
If airborne, he said, the germs can hover in the air for up to two days, meaning the virus could be contracted without direct contact with an infected person.
While Florida doesn’t have any confirmed cases, Sinnott said that the state should be prepared to take steps if the coronavirus takes root in the United States, including having facemasks and ventilators available for public use.
Meanwhile, state Surgeon General Scott Rivkees told senators the state Department of Health has been “fully engaged” from the beginning of the outbreak, monitoring the situation since early January, and that more than several hundred health department employees are working on the state’s response.
“Public health happens quietly in the background, but this is what we prepare for every day,” Rivkees said.
Rivkees acknowledged that the CDC sent coronavirus testing kits to the health department’s three main laboratories in Jacksonville, Miami and Tampa but that they weren’t able to be used.
“We’ll notify the public and health-care community when we are doing testing in our state,” Rivkees said adding, “In the meantime the CDC will continue to perform testing.”
Rivkees has come under fire for not being forthcoming with information about the numbers of people who live in Florida and have been tested for the virus. He told the committee that doctors who suspect the coronavirus have been instructed to contact their local county health departments, collect specimens and ship them to the CDC for testing.
He defended his position to not disclose that information, citing a law regarding patient confidentiality. “We cannot release investigative reports,” he told the committee.
But Sen. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, noted that the state routinely released information on the numbers of people being tested during an outbreak of the Zika virus.
“So what's the difference?” Berman asked Rivkees.
Because Zika was transmitted by mosquitoes that could fly about 100 yards, Rivkees said, “it was important for people to know if there were confirmed Zika cases nearby.”
Berman continued to press Rivkees, noting that Sinnott maintains the coronavirus may be picked up from inanimate objects that were touched by infected people or possibly be airborne.
Rivkees said he would change his position on public reporting of testing if the CDC changed its position on the transmission of the virus.
“Absolutely,” Rivkees said. “We are rapidly monitoring, and if changes are needed, we certainly will.”