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Florida should social distance until a vaccine exists — even if it’s next year, surgeon general says

After his assertion on social distancing, Scott Rivkees was quickly removed from the room by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ spokeswoman.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, left, looks on while State Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees, right, speaks about the confirmed coronavirus cases back in early March.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, left, looks on while State Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees, right, speaks about the confirmed coronavirus cases back in early March. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Apr. 13, 2020|Updated Apr. 14, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Floridians will be keeping their distance and wearing face masks for up to a year until a COVID-19 vaccine exists, Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees said Monday before being whisked away by the governor’s spokeswoman.

Rivkees told reporters that Floridians needed to get used to current precautions, such as avoiding crowds of 10 or more and wearing face masks in public.

“Until we get a vaccine, which is a while off, this is going to be our new normal and we need to adapt and protect ourselves,” he said.

The surgeon general’s comments appear to conflict with what Gov. Ron DeSantis and his political ally, President Donald Trump, have said about returning to pre-coronavirus life. Practicing social distancing for a year in order to prevent a second wave of outbreaks could take a significant toll on the economy, which has already ground to a halt.

Both DeSantis and Trump have worried that closing the economy that long would be a cure worse than the disease, although public health experts have warned that a quick return to normal could be dangerous.

It’s not clear whether DeSantis agreed with Rivkees’ assessment. DeSantis’ spokeswoman, Helen Aguirre Ferré, did not return a request for comment.

Rivkees and two other state officials were made available to speak to reporters following DeSantis’ news conference, the first time in weeks that both Rivkees and Mary Mayhew, secretary for the Agency for Health Care Administration, were seen at a DeSantis news conference.

Immediately after Rivkees’ acknowledged that a vaccine could be months or more than a year away, Ferré shifted attention away from Rivkees by asking reporters if they had questions for Mayhew.

When a reporter asked Mayhew a question, Ferré went up to Rivkees and the two quickly left the room. Ferré returned. Rivkees did not. His spokesman, Alberto Moscoso, said he left to attend a prescheduled meeting with DeSantis’ Deputy Chief of Staff, Adrian Lukis.

Before he left, Rivkees was asked to elaborate on his comments. He said that the current social distancing measures are the only way to stop person-to-person spread of the virus.

“As long as we’re going to have COVID in the environment, and this is a tough virus, we’re going to have to practice these measures so that we are all protected,” Rivkees said.

During a Monday news conference, Surgeon General Scott Rivkees was escorted off the dais by Gov. Ron DeSantis' spokeswoman, Helen Aguirre Ferré.
During a Monday news conference, Surgeon General Scott Rivkees was escorted off the dais by Gov. Ron DeSantis' spokeswoman, Helen Aguirre Ferré. [ Florida Channel ]

Rivkees, a pediatrician, was a controversial choice by DeSantis to lead Florida’s Department of Health last year. His career has been in pediatrics, academia and research rather than epidemiology or public health.

Before DeSantis decided to shut down the state on April 1, Rivkees had not advised the governor either way about whether a shut down was necessary, Ferré told the Times/Herald last month.

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Rivkees’ spokesman did not say how the surgeon general reached his conclusion on social distancing or whether the governor agreed with it.

“Social distancing and improved hygiene have proven to be effective in impeding the spread of COVID-19,” Moscoso, Rivkees’ spokesman, wrote the Times/Herald an email. “Until a vaccine is available, precautions will need to be taken to ensure public health.”

DeSantis was reluctant to issue a statewide stay-at-home order because he was concerned about its affect on the economy and on people’s mental health, he said. Unemployment claims have soared since mid-March, weeks before he eventually ordered the state’s residents to stay at home on April 1.

Governors have many factors to consider, including economic ones, when deciding whether to implement a statewide shut down or making other decisions, according to Harvard professor and epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch.

“I don’t think the public health recommendations should always be followed,” said Lipsitch, who was interviewed earlier this month.

But he said governors should strongly consider the advice when public health experts are so universal in their belief that a shutdown would prevent the health system from collapsing.

“As a general matter, public health is a type of expertise. Most governors don’t have (that) expertise,” he said. “They should seek out the people who do have the expertise, otherwise they’re not getting the best advice.”

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