TALLAHASSEE — Florida has been here before. But not like this.
This wave of the coronavirus crashing over the state is different. The strain is different: delta appears far more infectious than previous versions of the virus.
The patients filling hospitals at an alarming rate are different. They’re younger, and healthier. In the overwhelming majority of cases, they’re unvaccinated.
And the politics are different.
Last year, local governments issued mandates: Mask up. Shut down. Ride it out. But since then, Republican leaders have taken steps to forbid municipalities from instituting new restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. Now, some local officials say all they can do is beg people to get shots.
“In a perfect world, we would have the ability to look at things like mask mandates,” St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said in a Friday interview. “At this point in time, all I can say is ‘Please get vaccinated,’ because we don’t want anyone to get unnecessarily ill or to die.”
Few leaders from either party at any level are calling for actions like business shutdowns. That’s another change in precedent. Last summer, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration suspended drinking alcohol at bars. Since last fall, DeSantis, a Republican, has sworn off business restrictions and mandates of any kind. Many prominent Democrats, including President Joe Biden and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, now agree governments should not shut down businesses in an attempt to slow the virus’ spread.
But without the blunt instrument of a lockdown or a mask mandate, it’s unclear what localities are supposed to do while their hospitals fill up. Earlier this year, DeSantis signed a law banning governments, schools and businesses from requiring proof of coronavirus vaccinations from the people seeking their services. Under that law, local governments also may not declare states of emergency for longer than seven days at a time. Under an executive order he signed in May, cities may not enforce any sort of COVID-19-related mandate.
Kriseman, a Democrat, said he would look at potentially mandating vaccines for St. Petersburg’s 3,000 employees. Leon County and Orange County — where COVID-19 hospitalizations are surging — did something similar earlier this week. It’s unclear whether such actions will be challenged; DeSantis’ office said his legal team is reviewing the issue.
Hillsborough County will require the public to wear masks inside county buildings beginning Monday. Hillsborough County Commission chair Pat Kemp said she would like to pass another countywide mask ordinance, but the new state law has essentially forbidden her from doing so.
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Some businesses are imposing their own restrictions. Disney will require many of its employees to be vaccinated, the major Florida employer announced Friday. And Publix supermarkets will require all of its employees to wear masks starting Monday.
Dr. Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida, said he recommends mask mandates in schools and communities at large.
“It’s imperative that people wear masks,” he said. “We need to slow this virus down. It’s taking off like wildfire in our communities.”
Christina Pushaw, a spokesperson for DeSantis, said “there is no reason to believe that a mask mandate would prevent a case increase,” citing other states that saw increases even after such mandates were tried at the state level.
Some local officials say they feel they already have the tools to fight the virus. Vaccines have been widely available to Floridians as young as 12 for months. They have been proven, in the overwhelming majority of cases, to prevent a person from suffering the worst effects of the virus.
“We’ve got the vaccine. We’ve got more accepted treatments,” Pinellas County Commission chair Dave Eggers, a Republican, said in a Friday interview. “I think we have what we need. I don’t think we need any other mandates. I think that’s a statewide call.”
DeSantis briefly addresses the surge
During the worst of 2020′s deadly summer COVID-19 surge, Florida hospitals added about 8,000 new patients infected with the virus in about 60 days.
This year, as the delta variant of the virus rampages through the state, Florida hospitals have added more than 7,000 new COVID-19 patients in just 21 days. The hospitals in the worst shape are in the Jacksonville and Orlando areas, but they’re quickly filling elsewhere, according to Mary Mayhew, a former top DeSantis health official who is now the CEO of the Florida Hospital Association. It’s unclear whether the surge is close to its peak.
Although DeSantis has been a vocal proponent of the coronavirus vaccines throughout this latest surge, there was a time when the virus was more emphasized in his agenda. In December and January, the governor toured the state, touting the vaccines and their availability to the oldest Floridians, who are most susceptible to the virus’ worst effects.
That effort paid dividends: Some 85 percent of Floridians older than 65 had received at least one dose of a vaccine as of Friday.
“It’s so obvious that this has worked for seniors,” said Thomas Hladish, a research scientist at the University of Florida’s department of biology and the Emerging Pathogens Institute. “If other age groups were vaccinated at the same rate that seniors have been, we would have significantly less of a problem.”
According to his daily schedule this past week, DeSantis did not hold any public events whose main topic was the summer surge.
DeSantis held two events about the dangers of mandating masks in schools. In between, he traveled to Utah to speak at the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council conference. Throughout the week, Florida’s governor criticized the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for its recommendation that vaccinated people wear masks inside in some situations.
He did briefly address the summer surge at a Friday event in Cape Coral: “If you look at the seasonal wave we’re experiencing in Florida, that’s being driven a lot by a lot of younger people. They’re not getting really sick from it or anything,” DeSantis said.
According to the coronavirus case numbers released by the state on Friday, nine in 10 cases reported in Florida this week were in people younger than 65.
Deaths are not increasing as quickly as the numbers of Floridians hospitalized. According to the New York Times, the two-week average of daily Florida coronavirus hospitalizations was up 123 percent as of Friday. The two-week average of daily deaths was up 77 percent, that newspaper reported.
Although it’s far more contagious than past virus strands, it’s unclear whether the delta variant is more deadly, Morris said. Pushaw said that there is no evidence to suggest delta is more deadly than past variants.
A worrying situation in state hospitals
The state’s hospitals are filling up. According to Tiffany Vause, a spokesperson for the Agency for Health Care Administration, nearly 84 percent of the state’s inpatient hospital beds are in use, and nearly 86 percent of its intensive care unit beds. COVID-19 patients make up about one-third of the people admitted to intensive care. Both inpatient and intensive care usage rates are approaching the state’s overall pandemic peak from last July, leaving short-staffed hospitals scrambling.
The state can help with some of these challenges, Mayhew said. She said her organization is in touch with the DeSantis administration about a potential Department of Health emergency rule allowing health care professionals licensed in other states to come work in Florida hospitals. The Agency for Health Care Administration could also temporarily lift bureaucratic discharge requirements that are keeping some patients without COVID-19 in hospitals longer than they need to be, she said.
Vause said in an email Friday that her agency is not working to change the discharge rules, but the state is urging insurers to make faster decisions about discharges. Weesam Khoury, a spokesperson for the Department of Health, said the department is working “diligently to ensure the licensing process is expedited and as efficient as possible to support health care facilities.”
Even outside of the hardest-hit hospitals of the Orlando and Jacksonville regions, local officials are feeling the surge. Barry Burton, the Pinellas County administrator, said some local hospitals are already having to divert ambulances to different locations because of capacity concerns.
It’s not all bad news. Justin Senior, the CEO of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance Of Florida, said despite thousands of recent reported COVID-19 cases in kids, children do not appear to be suffering the worst effects of the disease at his members’ hospitals.
The Florida vaccination effort is also picking back up, according to Friday’s numbers. The state saw a 16 percent week-over-week spike in vaccinations. The majority of the most recent week’s vaccinations were first doses.
“People are motivated to get the vaccine,” Senior said.
Still, some Democrats have called for DeSantis to take more drastic action than he’s been so far willing to take. State Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, on Tuesday urged DeSantis to order a statewide state of emergency so hospitals could unlock potential federal funding. Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami Gardens, called for DeSantis to impose a statewide mask mandate.
One thing most everyone seems to agree on: If someone is on the fence about getting vaccinated, it’s time to get off.
“What would be most helpful is getting the vaccination numbers up more,” Hladish said. “The vaccines do help in preventing infections with the delta variant, but they help even more to keep people out of hospitals.”
Times staff writers Barbara Behrendt and C.T. Bowen contributed to this report.