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Florida needs straight talk on coronavirus | Opinion

Sugar-coating the facts only downplays the risks and prolongs the crisis

Florida passed a grim milestone this weekend, surpassing New York for the second-highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States. With no national strategy or consistent message from Washington, it’s essential that Gov. Ron DeSantis talks straight about the situation and Florida’s evolving plan for containing the outbreak.

Florida has reported 432,747 cases since March 1, almost as many as California, a state with nearly twice the population. While the weekend numbers brought an end to Florida’s three-day streak of reporting more than 10,000 infections each day, it rounded out another record-breaking week for the number of fatalities and hospitalizations reported over a seven-day span. Florida’s infection rate also remained stubbornly high, varying from 13 percent to 18 percent in the past two weeks, well above the state’s target of below 10 percent.

Overtaking New York — once the epicenter of the nation’s outbreak — certainly is a hit to Florida’s psyche. The state was already trying to put a rosy spin on the numbers last week. DeSantis declared at a news conference Thursday the situation in Florida was “trending much better,” noting a drop in the infection rate and downward signs of emergency room admissions related to COVID-19. But those remarks came the same day President Donald Trump abruptly announced the Republican National Convention would cancel its August event in Jacksonville because of a surge in Florida cases.

These conflicting pictures come as Florida families are grappling with the most consequential decision to date — whether, when and how to reopen schools. The mixed messaging only undermines public confidence in government.

America’s leaders should offer hope and encouragement in times of crisis. And Florida’s experience must be measured through a variety of data points and considered in context. The state has more cases than New York, for example, but has suffered a fraction of New York’s total deaths from the virus.

Still, the outpouring of new cases, the stresses on the health care system and the rash of infections in younger Floridians pose daunting new challenges at a time the state is struggling to restart its economy. Last week, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, Deborah Birx, told NBC News the country is now dealing with “three New Yorks,” as she described the surge in new cases in Texas, Florida and California. Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway criticized states that have become hotspots, blaming the governors for opening up too quickly. On Monday, the Miami Marlins scratched their home opener against the Baltimore Orioles after learning that 14 members of the baseball team — 12 players and two coaches — had tested positive for the virus. So much for a clear picture of where this pandemic is going.

DeSantis needs to provide the unvarnished facts as Florida continues to weather this public health crisis. The state cannot afford to squander the public’s trust in its ability to manage the pandemic. That confidence will be essential as the state looks to further reopen. Nearly five months into this pandemic, the public has learned to temper its expectations. Our leaders should know that there’s nothing positive gained from overselling reality.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news

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