Is Florida past its peak? Hard to say as state’s coronavirus cases rise to 27,869

The tally of coronavirus-related deaths stands at 884.
Handwriting on the window of the Divino Ceviche restaurant sends a positive message to customers during the new coronavirus pandemic, Monday in Coral Gables. The restaurant is open only for takeout and delivery to mitigate the spread of the new coronavirus.
Handwriting on the window of the Divino Ceviche restaurant sends a positive message to customers during the new coronavirus pandemic, Monday in Coral Gables. The restaurant is open only for takeout and delivery to mitigate the spread of the new coronavirus. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]
Published Apr. 21, 2020|Updated Apr. 21, 2020

The number of confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in Florida rose by 811 on Tuesday, and 44 more deaths were reported as officials and residents alike look for hopeful signs that the Sunshine State has passed its COVID-19 peak.

Florida reported 27,869 confirmed cases and 884 deaths linked to the virus whose quick spread has forced the shutdown of schools, businesses and public spaces.

A Tampa Bay Times analysis of Florida’s data shows that while the number of confirmed cases appears to be declining, the same trend is not yet true for COVID-19 deaths.

The record number for new deaths was set April 15, with 72 reported in the 24 hours ending that morning. There hasn’t been a day as high in the week since. But Tuesday morning marked a 24-hour period with 50 new deaths, twice as many as the day before and a mark higher than the average over the past week.

The number of new cases has been generally trending downward in the last couple weeks although there have been some single-day spikes.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and other officials have been eyeing the state’s coronavirus numbers as well as data on the economy to determine next steps amid the pandemic. A task force convened by the governor is expected to make recommendations this week on when and how to begin relaxing some social restrictions and reopening the state.

Related: Governor's task force to reopen Florida will make recommendations this week

There is no easy answer on when Florida will emerge from the pandemic or what will happen when it does.

Forecasting the spread and lethality of the virus in different communities has proven challenging for a variety of reasons, including limited data and testing, uncertainty in the face of a pandemic that is unprecedented in recent history and the different impacts of social distancing and quarantine measures.

A leading coronavirus model by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington has updated its projections for Florida multiple times. At one point, it said the peak of the virus in the Sunshine State would be this week. Currently, it says the projected peak in daily deaths passed 17 days ago and it projects that Florida could ease restrictions beginning June 1.

But that model does not allow for the possibility that the coronavirus outbreak could have multiple peaks. And experts say epidemics can be drastically altered by an individual or by an event, such as an outbreak in a large nursing home or at a wedding or funeral.

Another model out of the University of Texas at Austin on Tuesday put an 85 percent probability that Florida’s peak has already passed and a 97 percent probability that the peak will have passed within seven days.

It shows multiple plausible projections — with a wide range of uncertainty — for how coronavirus-related deaths could rise or fall in the coming weeks. For April 30, for instance, it shows projections as high as 51 deaths and as low as four.

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On Tuesday, DeSantis decried expert projections from last month that had anticipated higher case numbers and fatalities than what has been seen in the Sunshine State.

He touted his response to the pandemic and pointed to data showing that Florida has flattened the curve to avoid an even higher initial spike in cases and deaths. And he chastised media outlets that had reported on the experts’ models for Florida.

“Those predictions have been false. Our work is succeeding. We have flattened the curve,” DeSantis said. He said that not only have Florida hospitals not been overrun, but ICU beds and field hospitals sit empty right now.

“Florida did better than any of the projections that people have made,” DeSantis said.

Certainly, Florida’s coronavirus cases and deaths have not been as high as some had initially feared, likely due in part to social distancing and other measures.

DeSantis moved on March 14 to suspend visitors at the vulnerable nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, and ordered a safer-at-home rule on April 1, among other initiatives.

Hospitals in the Tampa Bay area and elsewhere have not reported a strain on capacity due to the coronavirus.

Related: Here's how many hospital beds are available in Tampa Bay right now

Although Florida is the third-largest state, some smaller states have reported higher death tolls and positive cases of the coronavirus, including Illinois, Massachusetts and Michigan.

Still, the state has seen hot spots for the coronavirus, particularly in South Florida. Manatee County, too, is seeing higher numbers of deaths than its neighboring counties despite being considerably smaller than some of them.

Meanwhile, counties like Pinellas are reporting outbreaks at some long-term care facilities for the first time.

Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees said last week that Floridians should keep their distance and wear face masks until a vaccine exists, saying precautions should be taken to keep the virus from spreading.

Jay Wolfson, a professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health and an expert on health care policy, said the state’s coronavirus data appears to be showing a “possible plateau.”

He said social distancing and other efforts that have been put in place in the state have helped “substantially mitigate the real damage that we know could occur.”

But he warned that Florida should not “spit into the wind and get too cocky about this monster.” He said it’s not possible to over-prepare for the pandemic and urged Floridians to “continue to use common sense and be attentive to the safety and welfare of ourselves, our families and our communities.”

As of Tuesday evening, the state is reporting 979 cases and 22 deaths in Hillsborough County; 632 cases and 19 deaths in Pinellas County; 213 cases and three deaths in Pasco County; and 84 cases and four deaths in Hernando County.

In the greater Tampa Bay region, Manatee County has 443 confirmed cases and 35 deaths, while Polk County has 356 known cases and 15 deaths and Citrus County has 92 cases and eight deaths reported.

The state reported five new deaths in the greater Tampa Bay region on Tuesday: a 61-year-old Manatee County woman, a 92-year-old Hillsborough woman, a 44-year-old Polk man, a 79-year-old Pinellas man and a 96-year-old Pinellas County woman. The 96-year-old woman listed in the state’s death tally is the same age and gender as a resident at the Seminole Pavilion Rehabilitation nursing home who died Tuesday. That facility has seen four deaths linked to the coronavirus.

Related: Fourth coronavirus death tied to Seminole nursing home

The state’s case tracking includes residents and visitors diagnosed in Florida as well as a small number of Floridians who were tested and isolated elsewhere.

Still, the official numbers are likely an undercount. Some people who may have contracted the virus may never get tested and would therefore not be counted. Limited testing and testing delays could add to an undercount.

How fast is the number of Florida COVID-19 cases growing?

Morning updates typically show low numbers for the current day.

So far, 282,942 people in Florida have been tested for the novel coronavirus. That’s equal to less than 1.4 percent of the state’s population. The amount of testing varies by county.

Hospitalizations continued to rise Tuesday morning. More than 4,400 people have been hospitalized at some point due to the virus, the state said. That could include people who have since died or have recovered.

The much-watched spread of the coronavirus among the vulnerable populations in long-term care facilities appeared to continue Tuesday. The state reported an additional 225 cases and 18 deaths from 24 hours earlier, saying 2,153 residents and staff of those facilities have tested positive for the virus to date and 222 have died.

What are the latest numbers on coronavirus in Tampa Bay?

Florida coronavirus cases by age group

Doctors say older people are at a greater risk to developing severe symptoms from COVID-19, which makes Florida especially vulnerable.

Times staff writers Adam Playford, Kathleen McGrory and Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.

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