Updated March 22: National and local health officials are responding to community outbreaks of the pneumonia-like respiratory illness, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), which originated in China in December and has infected more than 256,000 people worldwide.
There are more than 170,000 cases confirmed in more than 100 nations outside of China. More than 10,000 deaths have been reported worldwide.
In the U.S., there are more than 24,000 people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, with the largest clusters around Seattle, New York City and in northern California. At least 285 people have died, including 12 deaths in Florida.
Florida health officials report that 177 people in Miami-Dade, 180 in Broward County and 59 in Palm Beach County have tested positive for COVID-19. Overall, state health officials confirm at least 830 cases in Florida. Additionally, the number of people under “public health monitoring” in Florida is at 1,100, mostly travelers who had visited outbreak areas in Asia or Europe.
Throughout South Florida, major public and sporting events have been either cancelled or indefinitely postponed, and public schools have closed beginning March 16 — at least until mid-April. Most restaurants have been ordered closed, except for takeout and delivery services. Most non-essential retailers, and most shopping malls, have closed. Supermarkets and drug stores remain open, but many have modified hours to allow for extensive cleaning and restocking of shelves.
Most cases of COVID-19 involve mild symptoms, including fever, tiredness and a dry cough, that can be home-treated without medical intervention. Following guidance from the CDC, Baptist Health South Florida is encouraging people who may be experiencing symptoms similar to those of COVID-19 to stay home and see a doctor from their smartphone, tablet or computer via the Baptist Health Care On Demand app 
COVID-19 testing sites, some with drive-thru capability, are being set up throughout South Florida, said the Florida governor.
Who is Most at Risk
“Most individuals with COVID-19 will have a mild case — 80 percent of individuals will be home-treated,” explained Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, M.D. “Up to 15 percent of individuals may have a more severe case requiring hospitalization. For up to 5 percent of individuals, (COVID-19) may be especially severe.”
Worldwide, adults older than 60 with underlying health issues have been affected the hardest by the virus.
“The elderly and individuals with underlying medical conditions, like high blood pressure, obesity, heart problems and diabetes, may be more prone to develop serious complications should they contract COVID-19,” said Dr. Rivkees.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration  has announced that testing for COVID-19 will be expanded significantly across the U.S. by authorizing private laboratories and hospitals to conduct tests — instead of the current method of having the CDC analyze specimens, which can take as long as five days to complete.
The FDA’s decision should speed up detection of COVID-19 infections and make it possible for health officials to identify outbreak locations. Dozens of labs — run by states, universities and private companies — have applied for emergency approval for on-site testing. Once these labs have submitted evidence that they are fully capable of testing for COVID-19, they will be able to use them immediately, bypassing the normal and lengthier review process at the FDA.
“This action today reflects our public health commitment to addressing critical public health needs and rapidly responding and adapting to this dynamic and evolving situation,” the F.D.A.’s commissioner, Stephen M. Hahn, said in a statement.
Symptoms of COVID-19
The most common symptoms associated with this virus have included fever, tiredness and cough. Some patients have aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny noses, sore throat and diarrhea. The majority of cases involve mild symptoms. The most severe cases present conditions similar to pneumonia, which is an infection that inflames the air sacs in one or both lungs. The more serious cases involve trouble breathing. The incubation period — or the time elapsed between exposure and when symptoms first become apparent — for COVID-19 is between 2 to 14 days.
South Florida healthcare professionals are preparing for any possible outbreak.
Baptist Health South Florida is screening patients at entry points, including ERs and urgent care facilities, for pneumonia-like symptoms, similar to those reported in COVID-19 patients, said Anexis Lopez, R.N, manager of Infection Control at Doctors Hospital, part of Baptist Health South Florida . Baptist Health will work closely with local and national public health officials if there is an outbreak.
“We’re vigilant and already screening anybody who has traveled to the affected area within the past 14 days for fever, cough or any trouble breathing. We want to make sure we identify and isolate any potential patients of the virus.”
Ms. Lopez offers the same infection protection tips for the public  that apply to avoiding the flu or other viruses. Washing your hands frequently with soap and water is a priority. So is keeping your distance from anyone who is sneezing or coughing.
The CDC says that it is “unclear how easily this virus is spreading between people.” Pubic health officials say that people carrying the virus, but not showing symptoms, may still be able to infect others.
“If you’re traveling, you need to protect yourself,” says Ms. Lopez. “And if you’re next to somebody who’s coughing or sneezing, you should stay away from that person as much as possible.”
The CDC says the virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person:
- Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet)
- Via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
- These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.
It’s also possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it — and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes. However, this surface-originating method is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, the CDC says.