TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday defended his decision to reopen the state despite the months-long surge in new cases, suggesting that Florida’s “flatter curve” meant that although the virus had abated, it hung around longer.
At a news conference in Orlando, DeSantis was asked about comments by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who said Thursday that Florida had “jumped over a couple of checkpoints” and opened too early, leading to the surge in cases in every county in the state.
“We had very, very low prevalence, particularly in the 64 counties outside of southern Florida, and we did put southern Florida on a different pathway,‘' the governor told reporters, referring to the lower numbers of people testing positive in May and early June. “So I think there was really no justification to not move forward.”
A Miami Herald analysis, however, showed that new cases and positivity started rising in early May, even prior to reopening. By the time the state entered Phase 2 of its reopening on June 5, the numbers were showing what experts called “leading indicators of a resurgence” of COVID-19 in Florida. That resurgence began within two weeks of initial reopening, the analysis shows — the amount of time experts say it takes to see the impact of policy decisions on rates of transmission.
Hospital admissions rising
Since July 1, the number of people who were infected by the disease a month earlier have now started to crowd Florida hospitals. COVID-19 admissions have jumped by 13 percent, according to Florida Department of Health records, and nearly half of Florida’s intensive care units are 90 percent full.
On Friday, the governor made no mention of the 11,433 new positive COVID-19 cases reported by the Florida Department of Health, or the 93 deaths. Instead, he attributed the rise in new positive cases to the fact that the virus has been in Florida longer because of a “flatter curve.”
“When you have a flatter curve, which Florida has — I mean if you look at the Northeast, they went boom ... Florida, Texas, we’re just much flatter,‘' DeSantis said. “It means it goes on longer, and so you know we said you wanted a flatter curve but this is drawn out over a longer period of time.”
The Republican governor has rejected calls to issue a statewide mask mandate, even as public health data shows that an increasing number of regions of the state are reaching the tipping point for contagion.
A new map by the Harvard Global Health Institute using state COVID-19 data shows that 42 of Florida’s 67 counties are seeing more than 25 new cases per 100,000 population per day on a seven-day rolling average, a point at which public health experts consider a tipping point and recommend stay-home orders be issued.
The remaining 25 counties have seen new cases per 100,000 population rise by an average of 10 to 25 per day, a signal there is “significant spread” and public health experts recommend rigorous testing and tracing programs be implemented or stay-home orders.
DeSantis said Friday that the surge in July is not unique to Florida.
“We’ve now seen more cases in transmission at the exact same time that the rest of the Sunbelt is,‘' he said, noting that from Los Angeles to Texas, Georgia, Arizona and South Carolina cases have risen.
Birx: Don’t link surge with reopening
At a briefing at the White House on Wednesday, Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House coronavirus task force also suggested the increase in new cases in Florida could not be tied to reopening.
“The governor talks about how they were ‘steady and low’ for a long period of time after reopening,” she said. “That is reflected for almost five weeks after reopening.”
However, at the same time the governor was referring to steady and low numbers, data shows that testing had only increased by about 8 percent while new cases were rising by 42 percent, the Miami Herald analysis of the Florida health department’s case data found.
Since Monday, the governor has shifted his messaging from arguing that reopening the state was justified because the positivity rate was declining to now stating that the virus may be more prevalent in Florida than the state acknowledged but it is not a problem as long as people are not dying from it.
On Friday, the governor estimated that about 130,000 of the new cases involved people under the age of 45 whose mortality rate is “incredibly, incredibly low and probably close to zero for people that don’t have underlying conditions.”
A more important indicator than being infected, he said, is “who is getting infected.”
DeSantis also said there is an advantage to having the pandemic continue over a sustained period in Florida.
“There’s no question that has given our health care system, a better chance at dealing with the clinical consequences of this,‘' he said. “We have PPE (personal protective equipment).. We have a lot of stuff that was tough at the beginning. But it does mean it goes on, you know, longer than if you had a boom or bust.”
The governor said that hospitals could handle the increase in patients, and he urged people with life-threatening illnesses not to refrain from visiting emergency rooms because of the virus.
However, as a sign that hospitals were facing the strain, administrators at Baptist Health South Florida and Jackson Health System said they need more nurses and other staff to care for patients.
This week, the governor announced that the federal government was assisting the state to hire more than 1,000 contract health care workers to assist hospitals, nursing home and testing centers in Miami-Dade County and the Tampa Bay area. In Miami-Dade, hospitals neared capacity as administrators at Baptist Health South Florida and Jackson Health System said they need more nurses and other staff to care for patients.
el Nuevo Herald staff writers Ana Claudia Chacin and Miami Herald staff writer Sarah Blaskey contributed to this report.