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DeSantis: COVID was more prevalent than state admitted

The governor downplayed reports that Florida was reporting a record number of cases in the last two weeks.

TALLAHASSEE — As the number of coronavirus cases in Florida continued to explode, Gov. Ron DeSantis went to the heart of the state’s largest retirement community Monday and emphasized that while Florida is showing exponential growth in the number of COVID-19 infections, particularly among people in their 20s and 30s, he considers this nothing new.

“Cases are simply detected infections,‘' he said, pointing to a series of slides. “There have been way more infections than documented cases,‘' he said. “But it’s not really evidence that it’s more prevalent.”

The governor downplayed reports that Florida was reporting record number of cases in the last two weeks, when the state went from 100,000 to more than 200,000 cases on Sunday. Previously, it had taken nearly three months for the state to get to 100,000 cases and the surge prompted Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez to order restaurants, gyms and short-term vacation rentals will be ordered to close starting Wednesday.

The approach — that the disease was always as prevalent, but fewer people with infections were being tested — is a shift from where the governor was just over a month ago, when he said that positivity rates had subsided enough to lift statewide stay-home restrictions in all but the three South Florida counties. He then allowed bars and movie theaters to open at half capacity starting June 5 as the state moved to the second of the state’s three-phase reopening.

According to a Miami Herald analysis of the Florida Health Department’s case data, the 64 counties that moved into the second phase of reopening were already seeing about a 42% increase in new cases that could not be explained by increased testing alone.

The governor never publicly acknowledged that data, however, and instead attributed the rise in positive cases to increases in the number of tests being administered at nursing homes, prisons and among clusters of farm workers.

On Monday, the governor acknowledged that the virus in Florida never really subsided and in fact people with infections “may be 10 times as many” as people with confirmed cases. He cited data that shows the number of people testing positive in the last two weeks has remained at an alarming 14% to 15% positive rate statewide.

“It’s basically been the same,‘' the governor said, adding that the number of people testing positive is high now because the state is doing more testing in July than it was in April.

“I mean, when we do 85,000 tests, we’re gonna have more than when we’re doing 40,000 tests,‘' he said. “We’re gonna have less positives, but the percentage has been pretty consistent.”

He acknowledged that the average age of those testing positives was now 36, with cases growing among those in their 20s and 30s.

“This was probably circulating among that age group in March or April, we just weren’t testing for it,‘' he said. “But I do think it’s circulating at a higher rate now, certainly has in the last few weeks, that it would have been detected even if we were testing a little bit more aggressively.”

He emphasized that for every test there are dozens more cases out there and the sign that more people testing positive is a signal of the virus accelerating its pace in Florida. “The percentage has been pretty consistent,‘' he said.

Seeking help for hospital workload

For the past several weeks as Florida’s positive case numbers have risen, the governor has focused on data that shows that 20- and 30-year-olds with the virus often have mild or no symptoms.

On Monday, he added: “It’s good thing in terms of the health outcomes but it makes it harder to contain the spread.”

However, with an increasing number of people in the community testing positive for COVID-19, he said the trend also has the potential to overwhelm hospitals and strain public health staffing systems.

For example, DeSantis said, 40% of the people that come into Jackson Health System, Miami-Dade’s largest hospital network, for non-COVID-related medical needs like car accidents or childbirth are testing positive.

“Now they’re asymptomatic. They don’t need to be hospitalized for COVID,‘' he said. “But once somebody tests positive, there’s a whole set of procedures that then get put in place and requires manpower, so that those folks are isolated and the COVID doesn’t spread to other people.”

DeSantis said he is now requesting federal assistance “for some personnel support for hospital systems,‘' he said and added: “We think it’ll be favorably granted.”

The state hasn’t disclosed any details about how many extra hospital workers are needed, where in the state they’re needed most, or which hospitals specifically are stretched thin.

The surging cases have also provoked the governor to start talking more about encouraging people to distance themselves, especially “in closed spaces with air conditioning.” He now also encourages people to “wear a facial covering, but it’s not in lieu of social distancing,‘' he said.

Florida’s Department of Health on Monday confirmed 6,336 additional cases of COVID-19, bringing the state’s total to 206,447. There were also 47 new deaths announced, raising the statewide death toll to 3,778.

DeSantis commended The Villages retirement communitywhich spans parts of Lake, Sumter and Marion counties, for heeding warnings to stay safe.

According to the latest medical examiners report submitted to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, there have been 50 COVID-related deaths in the tri-county region, including 31 in Lake County, about half of whom were over the age 65; 11 in Marion County with six over age 65; and 8 in Sumter County with all but one over the age of 65. The medical examiner’s report only lists three victims as having resided in The Villages. Unlike 26 other states, Florida does not follow the Centers for Disease Control guidance and report probable COVID-19 cases in its death count.

“The message for our elderly population is to avoid crowds and minimize contact outside the home,‘' DeSantis said. “This virus is circulating more among people in their 20s and 30s.”

Miami Herald staff writer Daniel Chang contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

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