This is the first in a weekly series examining Florida’s coronavirus data from Tampa Bay Times Data Reporter Langston Taylor. Send questions or suggestions to email@example.com.
Here’s good news for Florida: fewer people are in the hospital for COVID-19 than a couple of weeks ago.
It’s one of the most important signs in the fight against the coronavirus. If current hospitalizations continue to decline, as they have for the past week and a half, that’s a clue fewer people are infected right now and fewer people will die in the future.
In mid-July, there were at any given time about 8,000 people in Florida hospitals whose primary diagnosis was COVID-19. Hospitalizations increased until around July 22, when the total peaked at about 9,400. But in the week ending Tuesday, hospitalizations dropped to about 8,200.
Since the peak, there has been about a 12 percent drop, and it looks steady.
We can put a lot of trust in this number. Other ways to measure the coronavirus outbreak have more drawbacks. The total number of cases is handcuffed by how many people we test. The total number of deaths is a lagging indicator — it tells us how widespread the virus was a few weeks ago.
And the value in the current hospitalizations number goes beyond providing an indication on how bad the pandemic is. It also measures current stress levels on the hospital system overall. Fewer patients means more room for everyone else who gets sick.
I wish I could tell you when, exactly, this promising pattern began.
Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration only began releasing the data to the public on July 10. Forty-seven other states released this data before Florida did, according to the COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer team led by journalists who analyze data nationwide.
But hospitalizations probably hadn’t been declining for too long before then, if they were at all.
Similar data from Miami-Dade County shows the number of patients admitted with COVID-19 was also rising in that county until about July 22, and has been coming down since then. It would be odd if the trend in the statewide count before mid-July was much different than the trend in Miami-Dade, not only the most populous county but also the one that has been the epicenter of the outbreak.
As nice as it is to know that hospitalizations are down, remember that trends can change. In late spring, the data indicated fewer and fewer people were contracting the coronavirus in Florida every day. That flipped after the state re-opened. More people were infected. The outbreak exploded. Deaths, which never fell too far, soared again.
Now, three times as many people are dying from COVID-19 as they did at the initial “peak” in May.
Changes don’t happen randomly. We know that between mid-March and mid-May, Floridians were leaving home less than half as much as normal. Testing capacity has grown over time. Schools and non-essential businesses closed. Concerts and sports (even those in the middle of a season) stopped cold-turkey. Nursing homes banned family visits.
Now, Gov. Ron DeSantis is floating re-opening nursing home visits for some. And some major school districts are scheduled to open classrooms in late August, although plans change by the day.
So if hospitalizations are down, why are deaths still skyrocketing? That’s because the state announces coronavirus deaths after a longer delay, making them a snapshot of a more distant past. It takes between a few days and two weeks after someone has died before they show up in the data. But deaths are naturally going to lag other indicators as well. People who die from COVID-19 were often hospitalized before that, tested positive before that and were infected even before that.
The state’s early peak in deaths came the first week in May, a full month after its peak in cases during the first week of April.
This time around, cases rose steadily through mid-July and peaked at about July 13. We would expect deaths to keep rising a few weeks after that, too. Case numbers dropped somewhat after peaking, before plummeting in recent days. But the threat of Tropical Storm Isaias closed the state’s public testing facilities over the weekend, so we should wait before reading too much into that.
Even once deaths turn around, there is a long way to go. States where the pandemic hit earlier show that it can take months for death numbers to come down.
Let’s say a goal would be to reduce the number of new deaths per day to less than 10 percent of a state’s peak. In Florida, that would mean reducing new deaths from 185 per day to just 18. While that sounds drastic, remember, that’s about where the state’s deaths were when Gov. Ron DeSantis issued stay-at-home orders in early April.
Of the nation’s worst 25 states in deaths per capita (Florida ranks 17th), only eight have achieved that goal at all. All eight are Northeastern states where COVID-19 hit earlier and harder. In five of those eight, it took more than two months to reduce deaths to the 10-percent level. (The others were New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, where death numbers soared before falling more rapidly.)
In Pennsylvania, for example, new deaths peaked at near 160 per day in early May, and didn’t fall below 16 until late July.
In the 16 other states where deaths haven’t dropped that much yet, 10 hit their peak more than two months ago.
This is to say, even if Florida deaths reverse course immediately and never spike again (a best-case scenario), it will probably take the state more than two months to fall below pre-shutdown levels and stay there.
The pandemic is not close to being done.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: A prior version of the story incorrectly characterized the peak of the hospitalizations number.)
We plan to continue this series every week, if possible. Send questions or suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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