After reopening, Florida hasn’t seen a spike in coronavirus cases. Are we in the clear?

Early signs offer hope that Floridians are acting carefully as they return to public life, doctors say, but they also warn it’s too soon to get complacent.
People walk around Sparkman Wharf in Tampa on Memorial Day.
People walk around Sparkman Wharf in Tampa on Memorial Day. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published May 28, 2020|Updated May 28, 2020

When Florida began to reopen May 4, allowing limited indoor dining at restaurants and visits to certain parks, some experts warned that the state might be moving too quickly.

Gov. Ron DeSantis was measured in easing regulations, they said, but the most effective response to stop the spread of the coronavirus had been extreme social distancing and stay-at-home orders. They warned of a spike in cases if people got too close too soon.

More than three weeks later, the state — according to data publicly released by the Department of Health — has not reported a surge in cases or deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“As mobility increased, we haven’t seen a spike in daily infections like we would have expected to see right now,” said Ali Mokdad, professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington. “We are puzzled by it.”

Early signs offer hope that Floridians are acting carefully as they return to public life, health specialists say, but they also warn it’s too early to draw firm conclusions. A surge remains possible, especially as people grow more comfortable and potentially complacent.

“It’s like a smoldering fire and when the conditions are ripe, it just takes off,” said Dr. Marissa Levine, director of the Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice at the University of South Florida. “A second wave isn’t something that happens right away.”

While seemingly past the initial peak of the three months since DeSantis announced the state’s first cases, the coronavirus continues to devastate. Health officials on Thursday announced 651 more cases and 46 deaths. Florida has now reported more than 53,000 people infected with the disease, and more than 2,400 dead.

In mid-May, the average daily caseload ticked up before plateauing at about 750 cases per day. The shifts don’t perfectly reflect all infections, and the positive case totals are influenced greatly by testing capacity — both the number of tests conducted and who is being tested. Reported deaths, meanwhile, stuck on a daily average of between 36 and 40 a day. In more recent updates, figures for both averages dropped, but the results are not consistent enough to make a clear trend.

Is Florida’s coronavirus outbreak still growing?

The governor is steadily easing up on pandemic closures, allowing the restricted return of salons, gyms and summer camps. Some bars remain shuttered, while many restaurants operate under limited capacity. Sunbathers unfurl their beach blankets and eager partiers return to their favorite drinking spots, which have opened by selling food. Not everyone wears a mask.

Mokdad said researchers’ guess is that Floridians who have left their homes are taking precautions like avoiding close groups of strangers and using face coverings, which doctors say may help prevent the spread of the virus. The state has seen an uptick in people moving around in May, typically shown by cell phone data, he said, but that mobility has not been strongly tied to more infections. The same trends, he said, have also been observed outside Florida.

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“The new mobility that we are seeing as a nation right now is different than the mobility we were seeing before COVID-19,” Mokdad said. Some people are clearly staying home.

The University of Washington is behind a widely cited disease model from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which has at times informed public policy during the pandemic. As of Tuesday, the model showed Florida on a downward trend for both cases and deaths. It assumes residents’ mobility patterns will stay at roughly the current rate through early August, and by the end of that period the state will have single-digit death reports per day, and about 100 daily infections.

The caveat, Mokdad said, is whether people continue to behave responsibly in public. He worries some revelers may have loosened up too much over Memorial Day weekend. Doctors say it takes a couple of weeks for case data to catch up to the disease’s real-time spread, because of a natural delay in symptoms and the time it takes to get test results. Florida is also not far enough from certain parts of its early reopening to know for sure whether those measures, which include bringing back gyms and adding capacity at restaurants, will contribute to a spike.

Mokdad, and some doctors, have warned that the coronavirus could have a resurgence in the fall, around the time of flu season.

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

Morning updates typically show low numbers for the current day.

Since the pandemic first arrived, people have heard it may not go away entirely until doctors identify a vaccine. Now Floridians could be confronting what exactly that means.

It could be that dozens of deaths and hundreds of reported infections per day are actually a sign of progress, something that would have seemed unfathomable just three months ago. But Dr. Eric Toner, a senior scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that may be the reality people have to face.

The goal of the most intense social distancing was “to prevent everybody from getting sick all at the same time” and overwhelming hospitals. “So that’s where we are, we are at this plateau, which is manageable for the health system,” Toner said. “We will be more or less in this place — there might be some spikes, it might get better for a while, some up and down — but more or less in the same place for a long time.”

Levine, of the University of South Florida, said if the current situation endures, “it would be a long time until we had enough people with immunity, and it would not spread in communities.” She said Florida still does not have enough reliable antibody tests, or a clear public strategy for deploying them, to get a broad sample of how many people could have resistance to the disease from past infections.

Different counties might have varying results moving forward, said Cindy Prins, an epidemiology professor at the University of Florida, with flares in some spots but not others. That would follow with how the virus has moved so far.

Outbreaks will continue, but the hope is disease tracers can now isolate and contain the spread before it gets out of control. That, of course, still means more sick people.

“Everything has been about as long as we keep the cases under the surge capacity at the hospital then we’re doing okay,” Prins said. “But then there is that reality that you are living with cases, and you are living with deaths.”

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 Langston Taylor, Caitlin Johnston, Steve Contorno, Adam Playford and Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report.

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