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Florida sees largest single-day jump in coronavirus cases as infections surpass 4,000

The number of coronavirus infections in Florida surged past 4,000 Saturday as the sun set on a week of stark changes to everyday life in South Florida, an upheaval meant to curb the spread of the virus.

By Saturday evening, 56 people in Florida had died from complications with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has killed more than 26,000 people worldwide, crippled the global economy and spurred Congress to pass a $2.2 trillion economic rescue package Friday, the largest stimulus plan in U.S. history. In Florida, the crisis threatens to overwhelm the state’s hospitals as infections increase.

Miami-Dade’s newest reported death, its third, is a 77-year-old man whose case is not travel-related. It is unknown if he had contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19

The county’s first coronavirus-related death was Israel Carrera, a 40-year-old who lived near North Miami City Hall, attended Winter Party Festival in Miami Beach in early March and later fell ill. He died on Thursday. Health officials say the second death was a 79-year-old man; no other details about his case were made public.

The state’s numbers don’t include two other Miami-Dade deaths that were confirmed Saturday by hospitals: Araceli Buendia Ilagan, 63, a long-time ICU nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital; and an unnamed patient at the Miami VA Healthcare System in his or her 90s, no other information released.

Saturday night, state health officials said Florida has 4,038 confirmed cases of COVID-19, an increase of 840 from Friday night and the biggest single-day increase yet.

South Florida is ground zero for the state’s outbreak, with the most confirmed infections in Miami-Dade County. There were 1,121 confirmed cases as of Saturday night. In Broward County, the Florida Department of Health reported 820 cases. Eleven people in Broward have died from COVID-19. Of the total, at least six were residents at Atria Willow Wood, an assisted living facility in Fort Lauderdale.

Stay at home

As some residents balanced working from home while schooling their children, they were strongly urged to stay inside and only leave to run necessary errands. Many others have lost their jobs in an massive blow to the workforce. More than 74,000 people statewide have filed unemployment claims.

In some cities, curfews cleared the streets at night. Miami started a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew Friday night. Miami Gardens imposed the same curfew Saturday night. Residents who left their homes during the day donned masks, gloves or both — protective apparel seen more and more in public as the week wore on. After the government shut down most shops, public parks and beaches, some of the only businesses open were grocery stores, hardware shops, gas stations, banks and pharmacies.

For several days, local mayors have urged their residents that if they leave their homes, they need to stay at least six feet away from each other.

“Any time you’re outside, you must maintain social distancing,” said Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez. “That is not a request. It’s an order.”

On Saturday, some heeded the order in some local grocery stores, while others were more crowded and less friendly to the six-feet rule.

Most shoppers at the Sabor Tropical Supermarket in Miami Beach, as well as the store’s staff, wore gloves and masks. At a nearby Publix, most workers were not wearing protective apparel. The store had far fewer shoppers than a typical Saturday, though shoppers were still not strictly adhering to social distancing. At the checkout line, blue tape on the floor marked where shoppers should stand, and clerks tried to enforce the distance in the lines. At another Publix in North Miami, a larger crowd left little room for distancing, and sanitizing wipes were not available.

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The heightened awareness of the pandemic has been bolstered by alert messages sent to cellphones across Miami-Dade and the whole state. On Friday, staffers in Miami-Dade emergency operations sent an alert to county residents urging them to stay home except for essential activities. State officials sent their first statewide alert on Saturday.

The advisory read: “FL Surgeon Gen: Stay home if 65+ or have medical conditions. All follow social distancing.”

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COVID-19 testing has ramped up, though experts say there needs to be more testing to fully understand the breadth of the virus’ spread in Miami-Dade. State and local authorities are looking into buying new tests, developed abroad, that are supposed to deliver rapid results in less than an hour.

County and city governments are purchasing testing kits and setting up sites to supplement those backed by state authorities On Saturday, the city of Miami announced a new drive-through testing site in Liberty City at Charles Hadley Park. The site will offer tests by appointment only, for city residents who are 65 and older and showing symptoms. Testing at the park is expected to begin at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

Checkpoints and travel concerns

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has focused on screening travelers from places where infection rates are high such as New York and Louisiana, announced plans Saturday to open a new checkpoint at the Florida-Georgia line on Interstate 95.

There’s already a checkpoint on Interstate 10 in the Florida’s Panhandle, at the Florida-Alabama line, where drivers are asked about their travels and must show their ID.

People arriving in Florida from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Louisiana are told they must self-quarantine for 14 days.

Meantime, it appeared that two checkpoints on roads leading into the Florida Keys, which opened with great fanfare on Friday, will close Sunday evening. City officials had lobbied for the roadblocks to keep tourists and other non-residents out of the Keys, and the county agreed to operate them, with help from Florida Highway Patrol troopers.

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Although Monroe County officials said the value of keeping the checkpoints in place would be reevaluated daily, a document saying they would be closed on Sunday surfaced, angering the municipal officials who had pushed them.

What’s more, Monroe Sheriff Rick Ramsay said Saturday that Gov. Ron DeSantis had ordered all troopers off the checkpoint only hours after they opened. Without the troopers, Ramsay said it is going to be difficult for him to staff the checkpoints for 24 hours.

“We’re so strapped for manpower as it is,” he said. “We knew from the beginning this was unsustainable.”

The pandemic has disrupted global travel by sea and plane, leaving thousands of Americans stuck overseas as countries close borders and airports. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of State have been operating removal flights to get U.S. citizens back home from around the world.

Since Sunday, the two agencies have brought back 466 U.S. citizens on three flights from Honduras and El Salvador. The third flight Friday from Central America had 257 U.S. citizens on board.

They are part of about 5,700 Americans who have been brought back to the U.S. from 17 countries since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, the majority flown on State Department chartered aircraft.

Herald staff writers Ben Conarck, Daniel Chang, David Goodhue and Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.

This story was originally published March 28, 2020 10:28 PM.

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