Florida health officials Thursday said state law prevents them from revealing information to the public about suspected cases of coronavirus, even though the state regularly revealed such information during the Zika crisis in 2017.
“We are unable to comment on potential coronavirus cases because of a state statute that prohibits us from doing so,” says Alberto Moscoso, communications director for the Florida Department of Health.
However, three health lawyers who reviewed the law for the South Florida Sun Sentinel, say the state can indeed release that information if it chooses to do so. The statute explains information from disease reports is exempt from public records laws and should be made public when necessary in order to protect public health “due to the highly infectious nature of the disease.”
“It’s a judgment call whether or not it’s necessary to the public health to release that information,” says Timothy Monaghan, a health care attorney with Shutts & Bowen in West Palm Beach. “Public officials may argue we are trying to avoid panic, but I think most people would say we need to know if it’s here in Florida so we can take precautions.”
Meanwhile, Joey Zumpano, founder and managing shareholder of health law firm Zumpano Patricios, agrees that withholding information from the public is a choice the state is making arbitrarily.
“Clearly what the statutory framework is intending to achieve is a balance between patient privacy and public health,” he says. “The statute leaves the judgment to the state. But the status of a highly contagious public health threat may be fundamental to any public health efforts centered on prevention.”
“There are no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Florida,” state Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees said in a written statement. “However, if any were to arise, we are prepared to contain this new infection, help any individuals sickened by the virus and keep Florida safe.”