It’s summer, and that means a fresh wave of stories about COVID-19 in Florida.
Last year, the press fixated on the state’s rising case and hospitalization rates, blaming them on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decisions to eschew government mask mandates and allow businesses to reopen, children to attend school, and residents to recreate without excessive restraints.
DeSantis was often unfavorably compared with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose iron-fisted restrictions were considered the epitome of enlightened governance.
Enthusiasm for Cuomo has waned, but heaping scorn on DeSantis is still in vogue. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson has dubbed DeSantis “public enemy number one,” first in line among “cynical and irresponsible Republican politicians [who] have created an environment that is killing Americans.”
So what’s really going on in Florida? Is DeSantis a cynical and irresponsible killer? Here are the facts.
1. Florida Is Experiencing a Spike in Cases: True.
Florida is experiencing a surge in new confirmed cases. The seven-day rolling average of new infections topped 18,000 on Aug. 5, more than the state logged in January.
Florida accounts for roughly 6% of the U.S. population but 18% of the seven-day moving average of daily new cases nationwide.
Those are concerning figures, but they should be understood in context. Most states are experiencing increases in cases, although Florida is unique in exceeding previous highs.
Florida’s increase resembles the U.K.’s, which only recently has begun to subside. The country’s mask mandates and other restrictions didn’t prevent a spike in cases, any more than such restrictions prevented recent or ongoing surges in Spain, Israel, France, Ireland, and the Netherlands
Florida’s spike in cases is consistent with a broader global pattern and isn’t easily attributable to the state’s refusal to implement mask mandates or adopt vaccine passports. Nor does a spike in cases necessarily produce a surge of severe illness or death, but more on that below.
2. Florida’s Increase in New Cases Is Due to Low Vaccination Rates: False.
“Seven states with the lowest vaccination rates represent just about 8.5% of the U.S. population, but account for more than 17% of cases,” Jeff Zients, White House COVID-19 response coordinator, said earlier this week. “And 1 in 3 cases nationwide occurred in Florida and Texas.”
Florida is not one of the seven states with the lowest vaccination rates. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data available on Aug. 5, 49.8% of Americans were fully vaccinated. That compares with 49.2% of Floridians. The vaccination rates among the elderly also are comparable—80.3% of Floridians over age 65 are fully vaccinated, compared with 80.2% of all Americans in that age group.
And while Florida’s vaccination rates vary by county, those rates don’t correlate with newly confirmed cases per 100,000 residents.
The data come from the most recent weekly report prepared by the Florida Department of Health. They show that even counties with high vaccination rates reported high new case rates for the week ending July 29.
Nearly 80% of the residents over the age of 12 living in Dade County (home to Miami), the state’s most populous, were fully vaccinated. But the county reported 532 new cases per 100,000 residents, exceeding the state’s elevated average of 503 new cases per 100,000.
Ten of the 17 counties that reported vaccination rates of 40% or less had lower rates of new infections than did Dade County. A similar pattern held in other populous counties with high vaccination rates, including St. Johns County (Jacksonville/St. Augustine) and Orange County (Orlando).
It is, of course, possible that most or all these new cases are occurring among the unvaccinated, but there may be a significant number of breakthrough cases. Unfortunately, neither the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nor the Florida Department of Health provides that information.
3. Florida Hospitals Are Overwhelmed: Mostly False.
President Joe Biden’s chief spokesperson, Jen Psaki, recently tweeted: “23% of new COVID hospitalizations in the U.S are in Florida, and their hospitals are being overwhelmed again.”
Let’s start with the word “again.” Among the media’s favorite stories to report last summer was that a run-up in COVID-19 cases had pushed Florida hospitals beyond their limits. As I’ve written (here, here, here, and here), that was not the case then.
And it isn’t the case now. It is true that Florida hospitals are treating a more significant share of COVID-19 patients than most other states and that hospitals are facing staffing challenges. Here is the breakdown, updated Aug. 6, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
- U.S.: 76.2% of inpatient beds are occupied, 7.9% by COVID-19 patients.
- Florida: 84.2% of inpatient beds are occupied, 22% by COVID-19 patients.
Those figures are at once disturbing and reassuring—disturbing because nearly 13,000 Floridians are hospitalized with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19, but reassuring because the state’s hospital systems still have plenty of unused capacity (roughly 9,400 empty beds). More than 11% of the state’s adult ICU beds are vacant.
Psaki’s allegation that Florida hospitals are “overwhelmed” is thus false, although the situation certainly bears watching.
More encouraging is that deaths associated with COVID-19 remain far below levels reached last summer and during January. The seven-day moving average of COVID-19-related deaths stood at 72 on Aug. 5, compared with 184 on Aug. 5, 2020, and 185 in late January.
While not conclusive—deaths generally lag new cases by a few weeks, and reporting is sometimes delayed—this resembles the pattern in the U.K., where a spike in infections did not result in a comparable rise in deaths.
4. Florida’s Spike in Cases Is DeSantis’ Fault: False.
Critics of DeSantis hold him responsible for the state’s spike in cases. Biden, for example, called on DeSantis to “get out of the way,” arguing that rising case counts were the direct result of the Florida governor’s policies.
A recent news analysis piece in The Hill is among the many publications touting this theme. “Conservative Republicans—notably Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott—have adopted a permissive approach,” the article asserted. “The result of their purported dedication to ‘freedom’ has been an explosion of coronavirus cases in their states.”
The article goes on to quote Georgetown law professor Lawrence Gostin as saying, “If you are against masks and vaccines, you might have a short-term win with people who don’t want to mask and vaccinate, but overall the population in your state doesn’t have the freedom to safely and securely go to do the things they love.”
The argument that Florida’s case rate has risen because its governor embraces freedom and opposes masks and vaccines doesn’t hold up.
First, DeSantis isn’t “against masks and vaccines.” Although he has shunned mask mandates, his state’s health department promotes mask-wearing and social distancing. His administration lets individuals and businesses respond to this advice instead of subjecting them to government mandates.
Similarly, although opposed to vaccine passports and mandates, the DeSantis administration promotes immunizations. Florida’s immunization rate is quite close to the national average. Its rise in cases is not due to low vaccination rates.
Second, despite the current uptick in cases, Florida has done an exceptional job preserving freedom and advancing public health throughout the pandemic. Florida’s COVID-19-related deaths per 100,000 population remain below the national average.
That is more remarkable considering that more than 1 in 5 residents is over age 65, the nation’s second-highest proportion of elderly. That demographic accounts for nearly 80% of COVID-related mortality nationally. Yet, Florida has outperformed numerous states with smaller proportions of elderly people that have adopted less “permissive” policies, including New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois and Delaware.
Florida’s increase in COVID-19 cases is troubling and not easily explained. Its vaccination rate is nearly identical to the national rate, and counties with very high vaccination rates are among those reporting big increases in cases. Allegations that the state’s hospitals are overwhelmed are exaggerated, although future capacity strains can’t yet be ruled out. That’s also true of COVID-19-related deaths, which have so far remained far below previous highs.
The president and his allies can’t resist politicizing the Florida case increases. Demonizing a governor of a rival party deflects from the national surge in cases, the administration’s frustration with lagging demand for vaccines (particularly among young adults and racial minorities), and the CDC’s confusing and conflicting advice on whether vaccinated people should wear masks.
The administration should undertake a serious effort to learn what’s behind Florida’s surge and prepare for the potential of similar spikes elsewhere in the country.
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