A case for social distancing: Miami mayor with COVID-19 shows virtually no symptoms

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez was the first U.S. mayor to test positive, and the second confirmed case in Miami-Dade County.


The Miami Herald

By Joey Flechas

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has COVID-19, though you wouldn't know it if you were sitting next to him.

Image: Twitter
Image: Twitter

Of course, Miamians won't be seeing him out and about at the moment — the mayor is in isolation in his Coconut Grove home after learning a Brazilian government official who had been in the mayor's vicinity last week tested positive. Miami-Dade's health department tested Suarez on Thursday before the mayor began his self-quarantine. On Friday, he publicly shared he was infected with the virus. He was the first U.S. mayor to test positive, and the second confirmed case in Miami-Dade County.

So far, he's feeling okay.

Mild to almost no symptoms right now," said Suarez on a Sunday morning video he posted on social media.

The mayor has been sharing his condition, his temperature and his thoughts in a daily video journal. He's also been updating the health department, who's monitoring for symptoms each day. Buried in hundreds of unread text messages are check-ins from public health professionals.

For now, COVID-19 has proven a mild illness for the 42-year-old who is otherwise in good health, with no underlying health conditions and a typical immune system. He took a few Tylenols for mild aches Saturday. No fever, according to readings from two thermometers he uses. Little bit of a runny nose.

I'm very fortunate that I seem to be, for the moment, in that 80% category who's experience mild to no symptoms," he said.

Suarez is not among the most at-risk of suffering severe effects of COVID-19, such as the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. The mayor and his lack of symptoms could be seen as a strong argument for the kind of social distancing — keeping at least six feet way from others and generally avoiding large gatherings of people — being widely recommended by public health officials in order to keep the virus from spreading. The idea, amplified in recent days from Washington, D.C. to City Hall, is for the wider population to avoid becoming unwitting carriers of a virus that can cause serious illness and death for the most vulnerable.

Gov. Ron DeSantis magnified the issue over the weekend when he acknowledged that Florida is experiencing "community spread" of coronavirus, or the transmitting of the virus among those who aren't sure how or where they got infected. As of the Sunday afternoon, the state tally for confirmed cases stood at 100, with three deaths. A fourth Floridian died from COVID-19, but while in California.

Even though Suarez has the virus and could spread it around through social contact, he wouldn't know he had it if it weren't the publicized positive test of Fabio Wajngarten, press secretary to Brazilian President Jair Boslonaro. Wajngarten and Suarez were all in the same room on two occasions on March 9.

My suspicion is that a lot of people have this and they don't even know it," he told the Miami Herald.

Several other government officials who came into close contact with Suarez tested negative, including all five commissioners and top administrators who were in close contact with the mayor last week, particularly at a City Commission meeting Thursday. Still, they all remain in quarantine as a precaution in case they show symptoms in the coming days.

From wash your hands' to social distancing

Only about one week ago, the messages from multiple municipal governments were conflicting — some large-scale events were canceled, but not all. When Suarez and Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo announced the cancellations of Ultra Music Festival and the Calle Ocho Festival, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the county Youth Fair would go on. Miami Beach leaders said the tourist destination would remain open for business for Spring Break.

There was less talk of social distancing. With no local COVID-19 cases, local leaders across the county were inconsistent when it came to whether or not large gatherings should still be allowed. One constant: Mitigating any potential threat to seniors, who are among the most vulnerable to the worst effects of the virus.

The situation changed rapidly after emergency declarations at the state and county levels, setting off a wave of cancellations and a heightened concern for the spread of the coronavirus. Eventually, instructions to wash hands and sanitize frequently were bolstered by advice to keep six feet distance and stay away from crowds.

By Sunday, as state health officials confirmed more cases in South Florida, the messages from various local governments aligned more closely. Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale used emergency powers to restrict beach access and limit business hours to prevent Spring Break from becoming a "petri dish for a very dangerous virus," in the words of Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber.

Framing the shifts in tone were medical workers calling for the delivery of more tests to meet demand, which would help the state truly understand how many Floridians are infected.

Among the recent group of test recipients: Gimemez, who shook hands with members of the Brazilian delegation. He tested negative last week. Like several Miami city administrators who were in close contact with Suarez but tested negative, Gimenez remains in quarantine as a precaution.

On Sunday, in a Skype interview from his home with WPLG Local 10, the county mayor shared a new refrain, a stark departure from previous statements: Act as if everyone has the infection. Personal responsibility, he said, can beat back the spread of COVID-19.

If we all go about our business assuming that everybody is infected and then we take the proper measures, then that's the best way to stop this virus," he said. "So, keep social distancing. We don't need to be shaking hands. We don't need to be kissing anybody. Try to keep about six feet away. Whenever you touch a smooth surface, wash your hands. Whenever you touch your face, wash your hands."

Suarez, speaking over the phone from his home, echoed Gimenez. He said if he hadn't been tested, he wouldn't think he had anything.

"I would not have thought I was sick," Suarez said.

In quarantine, the mayor has remained glued to his phone, speaking with City Manager Art Noriega, his wife, the media and others checking in on him. His young son and daughter, who are staying with their mother and extended family, have spoken with Suarez via FaceTime.

He's focused on monitoring his condition and working with the health department to figure out when he can emerge from quarantine. Officials have told him he could be tested twice again after not showing any symptoms for at least a day.

"They have indicated that you have to test negative twice in a 24- to 48-hour period," he said.

Past that, the politician might have to think about how to return to the daily functions of a city mayor in a landscape that will be altered for some unknown amount of time — one without community meetings and visits to senior centers, one without speaking engagements and photo opps where hands rest on shoulders. For some time, he'll have to have pull back on his signature greeting -- a clasped hand and half-hug. He acknowledged that for at least a little while, he'll join the mass of Miamians having to adjust to social protocols.

"I haven't given it that much thought," he said. "We're kind in a little bit of a new world."

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