In Florida, 83 percent of coronavirus deaths are people 65 and older

The Tampa Bay Times analyzed data and reports from the Florida Department of Health and medical examiners offices around the state.
Registered nurse Robert Atchison cares for a COVID-19 patient recently in the intensive care unit at Gulf Coast Medical Center in Fort Myers. "We're saving everyone we can," Atchison said.
Registered nurse Robert Atchison cares for a COVID-19 patient recently in the intensive care unit at Gulf Coast Medical Center in Fort Myers. "We're saving everyone we can," Atchison said. [ @2020 KINFAY MOROTI/SPECIAL TO TAMPA BAY TIMES | Kinfay Moroti | Special to the Times ]
Published May 17, 2020|Updated May 19, 2020

As the novel coronavirus has spread across Florida, much has remained uncertain about how long it will stay, how many it will infect and how many lives it will take.

But the virus’ grip on the state’s elderly is tragically clear.

In Florida, 83 percent of those who’ve died of the virus were over 65 years old. One in four people over 85 with a confirmed infection has died.

Outbreaks have devastated nursing homes in nearly every corner of the state, from the Panhandle down to the Atlantic coast. Some of the deadliest have occurred in the greater Tampa Bay region.

The percentage of deaths tied to care centers has been steadily increasing over the past several weeks. Now, at least 43 percent of deaths statewide can be attributed to long-term care facilities — the equivalent of 875 lives lost.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has listed the safety of the state’s most vulnerable as his top priority during the epidemic. He has touted Florida’s lower fatality rate, comparing it to less-populous states with higher death tolls.

But since the end of April, the death rate in Florida’s long-term care facilities has doubled.

Florida’s coronavirus deaths have not reached the levels some experts feared, or that some academic models predicted were possible. Still, on Saturday the state death toll was 2,040.

Related: How Florida slowed coronavirus: Everyone stayed home before they were told to

Among the dead is Bob Barnum, a 64-year-old St. Petersburg realtor who loved theater and championed equal rights for the LGBT community.

Luis Alpiste, 79, a former construction worker and father of four in Miami who used to wake his children at midnight on their birthdays.

Joyce Lee, a 96-year-old great-great-grandmother, who lived in Miramar, last worked as a housekeeper and loved her garden of fruits, vegetables and flowers.

Counting the dead

To better understand the lives claimed by the coronavirus in Florida, the Tampa Bay Times analyzed data and reports from the Florida Department of Health and medical examiners offices around the state. The Times analysis includes deaths counted by medical examiners through May 13.

Medical examiners count anyone who dies within the counties their offices serve, including residents of other states.

The health department’s published counts only include deaths of Florida residents, excluding visitors or some snowbirds. State officials do track non-resident deaths in their fuller data.

In Florida, under state law, only medical examiners can determine whether a death was caused by the coronavirus.

Related: A tribute to the Floridians taken by the coronavirus

Health department officials count anyone who tested positive for the virus and later died, no matter the cause of death, said Alberto Moscoso, a Florida Department of Health spokesman.

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“For example, if an individual tests positive for COVID-19 and then dies as a result of an accident, that case would be included in the Department’s list of deaths associated with COVID-19,” Moscoso told the Times.

It’s unclear what methodology health officials are using to calculate the numbers, or how many deaths not directly caused by COVID-19 are being counted. As of May 13, the state’s death count stood 6.7 percent higher than the medical examiners’ master list. In prior weeks, the medical examiners’ tally was higher.

Moscoso said health officials receive reports of deaths from many groups of people, including medical examiners, hospitals, nursing homes and families.

The Times gathered records from medical examiners in 21 of the state’s 22 districts, accounting for 1,539 deaths. Separately, the Times received a copy of a master list of coronavirus-related deaths from the state’s Medical Examiners Commission.

Most people who had a specific cause of death listed, beyond COVID-19, died of acute respiratory distress syndrome or pneumonia.

Among the medical examiner offices that included information about symptoms in their data, the most commonly reported ones were fever, cough and shortness of breath.

The average age of those who’ve died was 77 years old. Fifty-seven percent were men. About 63 percent were white.

Cities and states across the country have seen significant over-representations of black residents dying of the coronavirus.

Black Floridians account for about 20 percent of the state’s fatalities, and 16 percent of Florida’s overall population, according to an analysis of data from medical examiners. In some counties, such as Broward and Manatee, the disparity in deaths among black residents is larger. In Broward, black residents make up roughly 28 percent of the population but 37 percent of deaths. In Manatee, black residents account for about 9 percent of the population and 17 percent of deaths.

Hispanic Floridians represent about 22 percent of the deaths, according to a Department of Health report. That’s an under-representation when compared to the overall state population, where 26 percent identify as Hispanic.

The highest death rate in the state is in Suwannee County, where one of Florida’s deadliest nursing home outbreaks occurred. Among larger counties, the highest is in Manatee, where outbreaks in several nursing homes have killed dozens.

Manatee’s rate of 2 deaths per 10,000 residents is higher than the rates in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Broward counties, which together have formed Florida’s epicenter for the virus. Combined, those South Florida counties represent 57 percent of recorded deaths.

The rates in Tampa Bay’s largest counties are much lower. Pinellas has a rate of .67 deaths per 10,000 residents, while Hillsborough has a rate of .34.

Underlying illnesses

Many people who have died of the coronavirus in Florida had an underlying medical condition, which is among the highest risk factors for becoming seriously ill from the disease.

Not all medical examiner offices provide detailed information about existing illnesses in their records. Among the ones that do — including Miami-Dade, Pinellas, Hillsborough and Orange — similar patterns can be seen.

The most common conditions were hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Hundreds also had asthma, lung disease, cancer and kidney disease.

Related: Did you test positive for coronavirus? A Tampa Bay Times reporter would like to talk to you.

Dr. Erin Michos, a preventive cardiologist and associate professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, said people already living with a serious disease can have a harder time bouncing back from a new illness, like COVID-19.

The coronavirus infects the lungs and can lead to pneumonia. As a person’s lungs become inflamed and filled with fluid, breathing gets harder and harder. Many people with the virus develop very low oxygen levels, Michos said, because the infection in the lungs makes it harder for the body to circulate oxygen into the bloodstream.

The heart and the lungs work closely together to power the body: when there is stress on one, there can be stress on the other.

Having an existing medical problem, like cardiovascular disease, means your body already is under stress. A new virus attacking the respiratory system makes the strain greater and greater.

“There’s nothing more stressful than not being able to breathe,” Michos said.

A COVID-19 patient is cared for by registered nurse Aubry Sander recently in a negative pressure room at Gulf Coast Medical Center in Fort Myers. The room's ventilation system generates pressure lower than of the surroundings, allowing air to flow in but not out.
A COVID-19 patient is cared for by registered nurse Aubry Sander recently in a negative pressure room at Gulf Coast Medical Center in Fort Myers. The room's ventilation system generates pressure lower than of the surroundings, allowing air to flow in but not out. [ KINFAY MOROTI | Special to the Times ]

Experts say two things largely make older adults more susceptible to complications from COVID-19. The older you are, the more likely it is that you have existing health problems that limit your body’s ability to respond to a new threat. As you age, your immune system naturally weakens, making it harder to fight off pathogens.

The likelihood of becoming seriously ill to the point of hospitalization also correlates with age.

In Florida, 39 percent of people 65 and older with confirmed infections were hospitalized at some point. Forty-three percent of people 75 and older were hospitalized.

The highest fatality rates in Florida have been seen in the oldest age groups of coronavirus patients.

About 1 in 12 people between 65 and 74 with confirmed cases died.

About 1 in 6 people between 75 and 84 died.

And about 1 in 4 people 85 and older died.

Younger deaths

The Florida Department of Health has not recorded any coronavirus deaths among children.

The youngest confirmed fatality is a 26-year-old man in Miami-Dade County. He had a history of alcoholic cardiomyopathy and died at a hospital after developing pneumonia caused by COVID-19.

In Leon County, a 27-year-old man with a history of congestive heart failure, diabetes and hypertension endured a cough for a week and shortness of breath before going to a Tallahassee hospital. In the emergency room, his body went into acute respiratory arrest. His cause of death determined by the medical examiner: “acute respiratory failure due to pneumonia as a consequence of COVID-19.”

In Palm Beach County, a 33-year-old woman, described as possibly immunocompromised, died after developing pneumonia from her COVID-19 infection.

Across Florida, more than 300 people under the age of 65 have died. Most of the deaths of people younger than 40 years old have occurred in South Florida.

About 19 percent of people who’ve become infected require hospitalization at some point. Of the hospitalizations, about 45 percent were among people who were younger than 65.

About 15 percent were younger than 45. And about 7 percent were younger than 35.

Of the people hospitalized overall, about 19 percent have died.

In some healthy, younger adults, doctors have seen the body’s immune system over-respond to the virus, which can cause cardiac injury, Michos said.

“It’s sort of a fallacy to think of this as just a disease of older adults,” she said. “Really anybody is vulnerable.”

Statewide, 4.5 percent of confirmed cases of coronavirus have ended in death — a percentage that is lower than the national rate, which is about 5.7.

Related: See pictures of coronavirus impact from around the world

Calculating a case fatality rate, however, is problematic. The total number of coronavirus cases is unknown. People are believed to get sick and go undiagnosed. Some are asymptomatic. And some die from causes attributed to other things, like pneumonia, with no mention of COVID-19.

It’s more useful to watch the number of coronavirus deaths to essentially evaluate the epidemic’s behavior in Florida than to predict someone’s chances of dying, said Dr. Mary Jo Trepka, an infectious disease epidemiologist and professor at Florida International University in Miami.

“It’s good to look at the case fatality rate, and to watch it over time,” she said. “If for example, we see that it’s going up, that could indicate fewer people are getting testing, or that different groups of people are being infected.”

Mortality in Tampa Bay

The percentage of older adults dying in Tampa Bay is slighter higher than the state overall.

The seven-county region has recorded 272 coronavirus-related deaths, 86 percent of which involved people over 65. The average age of those who died was 78.

In Pinellas County, the numbers are more dramatic. About 91 percent of people who’ve died were over 65 years old.

Younger residents have died, too. A 35-year-old Hillsborough woman, a 40-year-old Pinellas woman, a 44-year-old Polk man, a 45-year-old Manatee man, a 46-year-old Hernando woman.

But, according to Florida Department of Health records, more than half of the region’s deaths can be attributed to nursing home outbreaks.

In Plant City, the virus spread at the Community Convalescent Center, killing at least six.

In Tampa, infection infiltrated the Bristol at Tampa Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, killing at least 15.

In Bradenton, at least 17 residents and two staff members have died at Braden River Rehabilitation Center. In Palmetto, at least 14 have died at Riviera Palms Rehabilitation Center.

In Lakeland, at least 20 people have died at the Highlands Lake Center.

In Seminole, at least 31 residents and one staff member have died after an outbreak at Freedom Square of Seminole, a retirement community. It is now the deadliest outbreak in the state.

Across the facilities, hundreds were sickened. Dozens died in smaller outbreaks.

Regionally, according to state figures, residents and staff of long-term care centers account for at least 159 coronavirus deaths.

Among them is Eleanor June Schueneman, 94, who tested positive for the virus during a stay at Freedom Square. She’d ridden a motorcycle to work into her 60s, and into her 90s, she still was making shawls for people at VA hospitals. Her daughter described her as “quiet and strong.”

Clayton Snare, 95, who died after contracting the virus at a Palm Harbor nursing home. He’d been a meteorologist in the Navy during World War II. He enjoyed golfing and going to church and was a father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

Daniel Lewis, 66, who died of COVID-19 after a two-week rehabilitation stay at Freedom Square. He was a former ambulance driver, a pillar for his family, they said. Everyone, his son said, was at risk of becoming his friend.

This analysis used May 16 data from the Florida Department of Health, a May 15 report of deaths at long-term care facilities published by the Department of Health, May 13 data from the Department of Health and Florida Medical Examiners Commission, and data from 21 of 22 medical examiners across Florida current to May 8.

Correction: One staff member has died at Freedom Square of Seminole. An earlier version of this story had an incorrect number.

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