As the remainder of Florida’s schools resumed classes Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he embraces the controversial view that people who test positive for the coronavirus but don’t show symptoms are not a large factor in spreading the disease.
His thoughts about the issue surfaced during an education roundtable in Tallahassee, where he sought to steer the conversation to the next big flashpoint: the inevitable decisions on when to close schools or classrooms as COVID-19 cases are reported.
To make his point, DeSantis brought in Scott Atlas, the White House’s new coronavirus adviser, who has promoted a controversial testing policy that suggests people with no symptoms should be discouraged from testing because it leads to shutdowns, a position opposed by other members of President Donald Trump’s task force.
“The purpose of testing is to protect the vulnerable,” Atlas said during Monday’s appearance with DeSantis in Tallahassee. “The goal of testing is not to close things.”
DeSantis invited Atlas, a neuroradiologist from Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institution, to speak on the day the last of Florida’s school districts resumed classes, some online and some in person. Also with them was Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, Surgeon General Scott Rivkees and two parents of children in Tallahassee schools. None of the panelists wore masks.
Atlas later joined DeSantis in the Villages and Tampa, where he told reporters the two had been speaking for “quite a while” about Florida’s coronavirus response.
Little is known about where DeSantis goes for advice and expertise about the country’s coronavirus outbreak. Monday was the first time most Floridians were introduced to Atlas, and DeSantis hasn’t mentioned him in the past.
“I talk to as many people as I can,” DeSantis said. He declined to say when he has consulted Atlas in the past or which state pandemic policies the Stanford doctor has helped shape.
The Florida Democratic Party spokeswoman Frances Swanson questioned Atlas’ credentials to advise Florida’s public health systems and called DeSantis’ tour of the state on Monday “another premature victory lap.”
Atlas supports policies of herd immunity and has urged that the United States adopt the model Sweden has used to respond to the virus outbreak, which advocates for lifting restrictions to allow more exposure and allow people to build up immunity to the disease rather than limiting social and business interactions to prevent the virus from spreading, according to recent reporting in The Washington Post.
“If everybody in the world was asymptomatic and they test positive, that’s not the goal here — that’s not the way to look at it,’' he said. “The way we look at it is who is sick and how do we prevent the people who are highly vulnerable from getting sick.”
Atlas asserted Monday that children are at low risk from the illness, and do not pass it along as readily as adults do. By setting priorities based on positivity rates rather than on the prevalence of cases where patients have symptoms, Atlas said, schools and other organizations might overreact.
As an example, he spoke of people who did not seek needed medical attention during the height of the pandemic.
“There is no need for fear at this point,” said Atlas, who also called for a resumption of college football.
This view, which lessens the urgency of testing seemingly healthy people for the coronavirus, is not universally shared. Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the nation’s leading epidemiologists, took a different stance in an interview with CNN.
“I am concerned about the interpretation of these recommendations and worried it will give people the incorrect assumption that asymptomatic spread is not of great concern. In fact it is,” said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
The DeSantis administration signaled that it was all in for the new approach, though.
DeSantis noted that he at one time viewed test positivity data as the most important data to have when making decisions about the virus. Now, he said, it appears clear to him that the more important information is how many people are arriving at hospitals with significant symptoms. And that number, he stressed, is at its best spot since mid June.
Simply knowing whether a person had carried the virus does not provide enough knowledge about whether the larger community is at risk of virus spread, DeSantis suggested. And it might not be the proper metric to decide whether to isolate people, taking them out of society and “putting their life on hold,” he added.
DeSantis said he wanted the Department of Health’s reporting system on schools to include such context when it comes out. A state report on schools was recently released publicly for a few days before being withdrawn so it could be modified.
“I would rather have 100 asymptomatic cases reported than 10 symptomatic cases reported, or 10 (emergency room) visits,” DeSantis said. “We would rather have 100 college students test positive than 10 people in a nursing home.”
The rise of such a perspective seemed to emerge two weeks ago, when Education Commissioner Corcoran acknowledged that cases would pop up in schools, and suggested the best approach would be “surgical.” He told superintendents to contact the education department before deciding to close classrooms or more.
State Surgeon General Rivkees, meanwhile, stressed the importance of ensuring that anyone who is sick, experiencing symptoms or awaiting a test result should stay home until cleared. It’s a message that school districts have been reinforcing as they open, and finding some students and employees ignoring that direction.
Corcoran said during the roundtable that the state’s effort to provide choices to families is working. He noted that about 60 percent of students have selected face-to-face classes so far, and said “we’re having great outcomes.”
He also noted the 1st District Court of Appeal sided with the state in delaying imposition of a Leon County Circuit judge’s ruling against his reopening order, which required schools to provide in-person classes by the end of August.
In its ruling reinstating the stay, released Monday, the court wrote, in part, “based on our preliminary review, the state has a substantial likelihood of succeeding on the merits in this appeal.”