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Hospitals at capacity? With no restrictions, dire coronavirus warning for Florida

Health officials predict that, by the second week of January, the Tampa Bay region will be reporting upwards of 15,000 coronavirus cases every day.

It’s been a week that sent mayors and governors scrambling to secure their state and reverse course as the U.S. teetered on the brink of a coronavirus resurgence.

More than 1 million people in the U.S. tested positive for the novel coronavirus in just six days, ballooning the nation’s overall caseload past 11 million and sending more than 73,000 people to hospital intensive care units. By Monday evening, the coronavirus had been blamed for more than 246,000 U.S. deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But in Florida, where the number of coronavirus infections remains the third-highest in the nation, bars and schools remain open and restaurants continue to operate at full capacity.

Soon, health officials warned, that means hospitals will be at full capacity, too.

“Make no mistake, we are at war and our enemy knows exactly how to kill us,” said Dr. Jay Wolfson, senior associate dean of the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine. “It thrives on our complacency, it thrives on those of us who are medically at risk and it thrives on people who continue to spend time in groups. And unless people take responsibility, it will win.”

Florida’s Department of Health reported more than 10,100 infections in a single day Sunday – the highest daily caseload since the height of the summer surge in mid-July. Since March 1, 889,864 people in Florida have tested positive for the virus, roughly one in every 23 Floridians.

A new concern is the positivity rate among children tested for the virus — 31 percent, according to recent data from the state Department Health, far above the national average of 11 percent.

The only states with higher caseloads are Texas, with 1.027 million infections, and California, with 1.029 million. The numbers align with the three states’ status as the most populous in the U.S. — California No. 1, Texas No. 2 and Florida No. 3.

A number of states have begun reinstating COVID-19 restrictions ahead of a holiday season that’s expected to make a dire situation worse. Among them are California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, Michigan and Washington.

Still, Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, appearing Tuesday on the Fox Business Network, delivered assurances that Florida would remain “open for business.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis has remained largely silent on whether the state is headed toward new coronavirus restrictions. The last ones were lifted Sept. 25 when Republican DeSantis issued an executive order prohibiting any local ordinances that restrict commerce and require that Florida remain fully open. The order also barred local governments from enforcing mask mandates or social distancing rules.

If anything can change that, Wolfson said — as it has in hard-hit states such as South Dakota, with the nation’s highest positivity rate — it will be the situation in Florida’s medical centers.

“The only thing that will cause, I think, political decisions in certain states to move toward at least partial lockdowns and mask mandates is the hospitals begin to get so full that they can no longer take in new patients,” he said. “And our ICU beds are already very, very full.”

Despite their inability to enforce it, Hillsborough County commissioners on Monday unanimously approved a “recommendation” asking nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other group homes to test their staffs for coronavirus on a routine basis.

"People wonder what good’s a recommendation if we’re not sending sheriffs in to enforce it,'' said Commissioner Mariella Smith. “But given how contentious discussions can be about mask-wearing and testing and some of these things, our recommendation gives those homes that want to comply some support and enables them to point to our authority to say it’s legally recommended.”

Still, Wolfson said, there’s little the government can do to stop the spread of coronavirus if people don’t take it seriously on their own.

Epidemiologists and biostatisticians have paid close attention to the virus' hold on Florida because of the high volume of travel in, out and across the state, Wolfson said.

About 1.5 million out-of-state visitors came to Florida over Memorial Day weekend, Wolfson said, and Florida’s unusually warm winter has continued to draw crowds to the beaches.

That could be why this latest national surge no longer seems so confined to specific states or regions as the summer’s surge was. This time, the nation is facing the wave together.

After eight months of observation, researchers have made a grim prediction for Florida, Wolfson said: By the second week of January, the Tampa Bay region will be reporting upwards of 15,000 coronavirus cases every day. That compares with 1,373 reported in the region Sunday.

In Hillsborough County alone, where the daily caseload has grown about 40 percent during the past two weeks, Wolfson and his team expect the number will swell to 5,000 people. Wolfson established the Florida Health Information Center through USF Health and has been working with researchers from the University of Washington and Johns Hopkins University.

The daily infection rates and hospitalizations in Florida will likely be higher and last longer than at any time since the start of the pandemic, Wolfson said. The good news, though, is that death rates should be lower than Florida’s summer surge because doctors know more about how the virus works.

“The next three months or so are going to be extremely challenging," he said, "but we can get over this thing if we put politics aside and do the things we know work: wash your hands, wear your mask, stay away from groups of people even if its your family.

"It’s a pain in the butt, especially over the holidays, but that’s the only way we’re going to survive this thing. We have to do it together.”

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

HOW CORONAVIRUS IS SPREADING IN FLORIDA: Find the latest numbers for your county, city or zip code.

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A TRIBUTE TO THE FLORIDIANS TAKEN BY THE CORONAVIRUS: They were parents and retirees, police officer and doctors, imperfect but loved deeply.

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