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It’s impossible to pinpoint when, exactly, Florida’s steep upward curve of coronavirus cases — with 1,037 added from Monday to Tuesday evening, and 14 new deaths — will level off.
Public health experts, watching the numbers climb, see a flurry of factors sending out ripple effects. Stay-at-home orders, media reports stressing social distancing, closed churches and shuttered cafes. School canceled and Plexiglass shields at grocery checkouts. Homemade masks, airport checkpoints, test backlogs and defiant spring breakers. Even sick celebrities and acquaintances play a role, so that more people know someone with the disease.
All of those factors and more are at work, shaping Florida’s curve. But there’s a lag time, and experts say the peak is yet to come.
“The more people adhere to the strictest social distancing, isolation and public health hygiene practices, the greater the impact on that curve — which is still going to result in more cases and deaths,” said Jay Wolfson, a professor at the University of South Florida's College of Public Health and an expert on health care policy.
Coronavirus cases in Florida now total 6,741, according to the state Department of Health.
And with the death Monday of a 92-year-old woman in Hillsborough County, the state’s death count has reached 85.
The county health department confirmed the death, its third, while the state noted no relevant travel or known contact with another confirmed case.
Hillsborough now has the fifth-largest caseload in Florida with 305.
Elsewhere in the region, Pinellas has 167 known cases, with five deaths; Pasco has 40, with two deaths; Hernando has 24, with no deaths; Citrus has 19, with two deaths; and Manatee has 53, with two deaths.
One of the Manatee deaths was added to the count Tuesday, of a 68-year-old man who had traveled to France. The state said he had contact with a confirmed case.
“As Dr. Fauci has said, even if we abide by the strictest guidelines, we can expect increases through the middle of April, at the least,” Wolfson said. After their steady and possibly exponential climb, cases may drop through the summer.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-diseases expert, and others have cautioned that another wave of infections could arrive in the fall, as this strain combines with a likely mutation.
In the meantime, Florida’s health care system is already under stress as officials push for more protective equipment direly needed by front-line workers.
More than 850 Florida residents have been hospitalized because of COVID-19, the disease caused by complications from the virus that can lead to severe respiratory infections. That makes a rate of about 13 percent, though known cases remain severely undercounted.
Testing has ramped up in Florida, with about 7,000 per day being added to the total of 63,400 tests so far. But supplies and rollout remain limited, and there’s still a lag time in results. Plus, federal leaders have prioritized more vulnerable people.
Many people with mild symptoms are encouraged to stay home, and thus don’t appear in the numbers. More troublingly, people without symptoms who may not realize they are carriers could be spreading the illness among family members, coworkers or fellow grocery shoppers.
“I think we are still realistically on an upward trend on the number of positive cases,” said Dr. Cindy Prins, clinical associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida’s College of Public Health. “I feel like that trend is going to continue because we’re still testing people who are symptomatic for the most part.”
She noted some other emerging data points: About 53 percent of cases have been identified in men, and 44 percent in women, with some unknowns. And while a large number of cases fall in the range of 25- to 65-year-olds, the vast majority of deaths strike people over 65.
South Florida remains the site of Florida’s worst outbreak. Miami-Dade County alone has 2,123 cases, and neighboring Broward has 1,219. Palm Beach has 551.
Between those three counties, Florida has confirmed 33 deaths to date.
Again resisting some calls for a statewide lockdown on Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis called on local governments to make such decisions. He described a flight over South Florida beaches, where people were defying a shelter-in-place order.
"Folks are going to do whatever the hell they want to," he said.
Rising confirmations in three of Florida’s other populous counties put Orange County at 373 cases, Duval at 207 and Lee at 206.
"Regardless of age, almost every fatality has had a serious underlying health condition," DeSantis said. The state has not released data to check against the governor’s statement.
On Twitter, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, until 2019 the commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, shared a graph showing Florida’s sharp uptick in cases.
“The state was probably heavily seeded at some point in early/mid February given pace of the case growth, which suggests there are multiple expanding clusters,” he wrote.
Again, the experts reiterated: Staying at home matters.
“Thomas Jefferson’s admonition that we must be constantly vigilant must be the order of the day for individuals, businesses and for our government,” Wolfson said.
As record numbers of Floridians battle website glitches and flooded hotlines to file for unemployment, Prins said she empathized with the people now unable to make a living.
“That’s really difficult,” she said. “I do believe that the instruction to stay at home is really, really important.”
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