coronavirus cases Florida reopening Many people who were showing symptoms were diagnosed with the common flu. But was it coronavirus?
Image via AP/Chris O'Meara

Data found in a Florida Department of Health report suggests symptoms of the disease started earlier than the state reported. And then the state’s database disappeared. 

Although Florida announced its first two cases of coronavirus in March 1, an investigation conducted by the Miami Herald found an intriguing piece of data hidden in a report released by the Florida Department of Health (FDH): that the COVID-19 spread in the Sunshine State may have started as early as late December or January.

According to the Herald analysis, at least 26 people who contracted the novel coronavirus, started showing symptoms in late December 2019 or early January. One of the most surprising and concerning facts found in the data is that at least eight of those who were symptomatic had not traveled nor had known contact with a person infected by the virus.

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A spokesperson for the Department of Health (DOH) told the paper it cannot be determined if these cases were COVID-19, as “most early cases were associated with international travel or exposure to international travelers.” But the DOH’s own data shows that 61% of the early cases were determined to be not travel related.

In fact, of the at least 170 COVID-19 patients who reported symptoms between Dec. 31, 2019, and February 29, 40% reported they had no known contact with someone ill with the virus, and the majority had not traveled, according to state health data. 

A Silent Spread

It now appears that although South Florida later became the epicenter for the virus, with Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties accounting for more than 50% of the total number of confirmed cases in the state,  coronavirus began to spread through Central and North Florida in January. At this time, the report points out, “testing for the contagion didn’t exist in the U.S. and many healthcare practitioners might have mistaken it for the flu.” 

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Testing for COVID-19 in Florida did not become available until late February, suggesting that, undetected or misdiagnosed, the disease began to spread silently throughout the state, unknown to Floridians. The CDC confirmed the first two cases of the illness, in Manatee and Hillsborough counties, on March 2. Florida now has more than 38,000 confirmed cases of the virus.

On March 11, at least three months after the suspected presence of coronavirus in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis denied that community spread was taking place in the state. The Republican governor did not issue a statewide stay-at-home until April 1. By that date, nearly 8,000 confirmed cases and 101 deaths had been reported in the state.  

A Mysterious Disappearance

Until Monday evening, although it did not identify the patient by name, the state’s publicly shared data included the date when the patient first started feeling symptoms or was confirmed positive. Monday night, the dataset abruptly disappeared from the state website.  It returned later that evening, but without showing the date when the symptoms were reported.