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Broward County has largest COVID-19 cluster in Florida, data shows

Public health officials report 12 COVID-19 patients remain in isolation in Broward County

Three Metro Cruise Services employees who worked at various cruise terminals at the Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale are linked to the Broward County COVID-19 cluster.
Three Metro Cruise Services employees who worked at various cruise terminals at the Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale are linked to the Broward County COVID-19 cluster.

BAY HARBOR ISLANDS, Fla. – Florida Department of Health officials reported about 20% of the positive cases of COVID-19 in Florida are in Broward County. The newly released data suggests the South Florida cluster grew and on Friday investigators had yet to determine exactly how.

Six of the cases in Broward remain under investigation, the data shows. Among the 12 patients who remain in isolation in Broward County is a 20-year-old woman who is from Texas and traveled to Europe, officials said. A 61-year-old man’s COVID-19 case is also travel related.

The cases of three men, ages 65, 67 and 75, and the case of a 69-year-old woman indicated there was community spread because investigators determined they were not related to “a known history of exposure to COVID-19 outside of the state.”

Officials identified the six Broward County patients, whose cases remain under investigation, as three women, ages 25, 28 and 68, and three men, ages 36, 65 and 70.

The 68-year-old woman, whose case remains under investigation, is associated with the Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, officials said. Earlier this week, investigators linked three other cases to various Port Everglades’ cruise terminals.

Caribbean Princess docks at Port Everglades after crew members tested for coronavirus
Caribbean Princess docks at Port Everglades after crew members tested for coronavirus

As of Thursday night, the 49 COVID-19 cases in Florida include 41 Florida residents, 5 patients who were repatriated from China -- where the COVID-19 outbreak began in December -- and three non-Florida residents from New York, Texas and Massachusetts.

Two COVID-19 patients have died since the COVID-19 cases started climbing on March 1st. The patients died in Santa Rosa and Lee counties.

The 71-year-old man from Santa Rosa was diagnosed after returning from a Nile River cruise and the 77-year-old woman had traveled to the Dominican Republic, officials said.

Nile river boat MS River Anuket docks in the city of Luxor in southern Egypt Saturday, March 7, 2020. The ship, carrying some 100 mostly foreign tourists is under quarantine after 12 people tested positive for the new coronavirus. The passengers have been confined to the ship while they await testing by Egyptian health authorities. (AP Photo/Maggie Michael)
Nile river boat MS River Anuket docks in the city of Luxor in southern Egypt Saturday, March 7, 2020. The ship, carrying some 100 mostly foreign tourists is under quarantine after 12 people tested positive for the new coronavirus. The passengers have been confined to the ship while they await testing by Egyptian health authorities. (AP Photo/Maggie Michael)

The new data also shows there are two men, ages 73 and 74, in Palm Beach County who were diagnosed after trips to Europe and a Nile River cruise.

According to Helen Aguirre, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office, the governor directed the Florida Division of Emergency Management to purchase 2,500 commercially available COVID-19 testing kits that will allow qualified labs the capacity to test 625,000 people. The tests are set to arrive on Saturday, Aguirre wrote on Twitter.

FILE - This undated file photo provided by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows CDC's laboratory test kit for the new coronavirus. (CDC via AP, File)
FILE - This undated file photo provided by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows CDC's laboratory test kit for the new coronavirus. (CDC via AP, File)

Here is the list of COVID-19 cases in Broward County:

TRAVEL RELATED: 2 cases (no longer under investigation)

- Man, 61, is a travel-related case.

- Woman, 20, is a travel-related case. Officials reported March 12 she is from Texas, traveled to Europe and remains in isolation in Broward County.

NOT TRAVEL RELATED: 4 cases

- Investigators reported these are the cases without a known history of exposure to another COVID-19 patient outside of the state:

- Man, 75, is not a travel-related case.

- Man, 65, is not a travel-related case.

- Man, 67, is not a travel-related case.

- Woman, 69, is not a travel-related case.

UNDER INVESTIGATION: 6 cases

- Man, 70, traveled to Tampa for a conference.

- Man, 65 is a case that remains under investigation.

- Woman, 28, is a case reported March 12. It’s unclear if its a travel-related case.

- Woman, 25, is a case reported March 12. This is a travel-related case that remains under investigation.

- Woman, 68, is a case reported March 12. This case is associated with Port Everglades.

- Man, 36, is a case reported March 12. It is a travel-related case that remains under investigation.

Virus testing is a ‘failing,’ leaving cases uncounted

The Associated Press

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, arrives at the Capitol to update all members of Congress on the coronavirus outbreak, in Washington, Thursday, March 12, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, arrives at the Capitol to update all members of Congress on the coronavirus outbreak, in Washington, Thursday, March 12, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Seven weeks have passed since the first U.S. case of coronavirus was announced, and the government is failing to account for what could be thousands of additional infections because of ongoing problems with testing.

“The system is not really geared to what we need right now,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert at the National Institutes of Health. “That is a failing. It is a failing, let’s admit it.”

The effort initially was hobbled by delays in getting testing kits out to public health labs, but the stumbles have continued, leading scientists to conclude that the virus has taken root in more places than government officials say.

U.S. health officials, for example, promised nearly a month ago to tap into a national network of labs that monitor for flu. That system is only just getting started.

Large-scale testing is a critical part of tracking the spread of infectious diseases and allocating resources for treatment. The lack of comprehensive figures means U.S. health providers could quickly be overwhelmed by undetected cases.

As of Thursday afternoon, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported about 1,260 U.S. illnesses — a number that trailed independent researchers, who are adding reports from individual states more quickly.

But some experts believe any number based on test results of individual patients is a dramatic undercount. Researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles this week estimated that the true count of infections was close to 9,000 — about two weeks ago.

“I expect there are more infected individuals now,” said one of the researchers, Dr. Jonathan Braun. “This means that the level of disease in the U.S. is much greater than has been reported by actual testing.”

The problem, these experts say: The U.S. simply isn’t testing enough people.

There are no official numbers from the federal government on the country’s overall testing capacity. One of the only comprehensive estimates comes from Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former FDA commissioner who is now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

As of Thursday, his group estimated U.S. labs could process results for more than 20,000 patients per day. The figure is based on a combination of publicly reported information and historical estimates from government, private and academic labs. It reflects the total number of patient results that could be processed in a day, not the current number being run.

Whatever the actual number, the U.S. effort is trailing other nations.

People watch a TV screen showing a live broadcast of U.S. President Donald Trump's speech at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, March 12, 2020. Trump announced he is cutting off travel from Europe to the U.S. and moving to ease the economic cost of a viral pandemic that is roiling global financial markets and disrupting the daily lives of Americans. The Korean letters read: "Trump national speech." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
People watch a TV screen showing a live broadcast of U.S. President Donald Trump's speech at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, March 12, 2020. Trump announced he is cutting off travel from Europe to the U.S. and moving to ease the economic cost of a viral pandemic that is roiling global financial markets and disrupting the daily lives of Americans. The Korean letters read: "Trump national speech." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

South Korea, a country one-sixth the size of the U.S. in population, is reportedly testing 15,000 people per day. CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield noted that officials there are using automated, high-volume testing systems capable of processing thousands of samples at a time. In contrast, the equipment used by most U.S. state and local labs requires technicians to manually process each sample in small batches, sometimes 100 or fewer per day.

The testing process in the U.S. requires mixing various chemicals to setup chain reactions that extract genetic information from patients’ swabs. Each lab must fine-tune the process on its own equipment, something experts have likened to perfecting a new recipe.

Unlike countries with centralized, government-based health care systems, the U.S. response is fragmented between public labs and private efforts by hospitals, universities and diagnostic companies.

U.S. officials have boasted of shipping well over 1 million tests to labs across the country. But it’s unclear how many have actually been used on patients, because tests have gone to some private labs and hospitals that don’t report into the CDC, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters earlier this week.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar demonstrates how to greet others with an elbow as he speaks during a television interview outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, Monday, March, 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar demonstrates how to greet others with an elbow as he speaks during a television interview outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, Monday, March, 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Azar said the government is working to set up a system to combine government testing figures with those of outside laboratories.

Government officials have pledged that large private testing companies like Quest Diagnostics will drastically expand U.S. capacity. A Quest spokeswoman on Wednesday said it could take up to six weeks to ramp up to testing tens of thousands of samples per week. The company expects to complete several thousand tests by the end of this week.

On Feb. 14, the CDC’s Dr. Nancy Messonnier said the agency planned in the coming weeks to use labs in five cities to provide a good look at whether coronavirus might be appearing. The idea: When patients test negative for flu, their specimens would go through coronavirus testing to see if the new bug caused their symptoms.

“Results from this surveillance would be an early warning signal, to trigger a change in our response strategy” if cases started appearing, she said.

But earlier this week, nearly a month after the announcement, doctors and scientists were still awaiting word on whether that surveillance system was up and running.

On Thursday, the CDC revealed that some labs had begun the testing. But the list of test sites had changed, and the agency did not explain why.

In its initial announcement, the CDC said the work would begin in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco and Seattle. On Thursday, it said it instead had begun in Chicago and four sites in California — Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Santa Clara.

Five other locations are working to get surveillance testing going, a CDC spokeswoman said. They are New York City; Orange County and Solano in California; and the states of Hawaii and Washington.

The agency did not immediately detail what the so-called sentinel testing sites have found.

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