Is Florida better than California at containing the coronavirus? | Analysis
A comparison of COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations.
A masked pedestrian walks past of a COVID 19-themed mural depicting Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, Wednesday in Beverly Hills, Calif. [Marcio Jose Sanchez | Associated Press]
A masked pedestrian walks past of a COVID 19-themed mural depicting Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, Wednesday in Beverly Hills, Calif. [Marcio Jose Sanchez | Associated Press] [ MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ | AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Dec. 12, 2020|Updated Dec. 12, 2020

Gov. Ron DeSantis often uses California as a foil. This year, he has targeted the Golden State for making a hash of controlling COVID-19. He did it again late last month during one of his few recent news conferences. When asked about business lockdowns and statewide mask mandates, DeSantis said they weren’t effective.

“At what point does the observed experience matter?” he countered.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s messaging about how to control the virus has been shaky at times. And he certainly deserves a Bronx cheer for attending a birthday party for his political adviser with several other families, defying his public advice to social distance. It didn’t help that the event took place at the French Laundry, a chic Napa Valley restaurant.

So no one will mistake Newsom for Winston Churchill, but how does his state stack up against Florida in controlling COVID-19? Does Cali deserve DeSantis’ aspersions?

Let’s start with some raw numbers. Since the start of the pandemic, California has recorded more COVID-19 cases and deaths than Florida.

Score one for the Sunshine State. But wait! Isn’t California much bigger than Florida? Indeed. California has nearly 40 million residents; Florida, about 22 million. Control for the difference and the picture changes. Florida has more cases per 100,000 residents. More deaths, too.

What about just the last 90 days (ending Thursday)? California has recorded more cases, but fewer deaths than Florida. Adjust for population and California comes out better on both measures.

What about just the last week? California still has a lower death rate, but Florida is narrowing the gap. In the last 90 days, California had tallied about 4.5 deaths for every 10 in Florida, accounting for the difference in overall population. But in the last seven days ending Thursday, the number has risen to more than seven California deaths for every 10 in Florida. On that trajectory — it’s a guess if it will remain the same — California’s seven-day death rate would surpass Florida’s in the next few weeks. California would still look better going back 90 days and to the start of the pandemic, at least for a while. But Florida’s rolling seven-day death rate would be lower than California’s.

What about COVID hospitalizations? That comparison is a little tricky. The COVID Tracking Project data used in much of this analysis does not include a running total of COVID hospitalizations for California. And Florida’s tally of how many people were in hospitals due to COVID on any given day only goes back to early July. But crunch the numbers and the data reveals that since July about 5,500 people have been in California hospitals on a typical day. In Florida, the tally was about 4,300.

But, again, account for California’s bigger population and the picture changes. For much of the summer and fall California had fewer people in hospitals when adjusted for population. That is until recently when California had a much faster increase in hospitalizations than Florida. The rise in hospitalizations in both states — particularly the sharp spike in California — portends more deaths, even with the many advances in COVID treatments developed since the spring.

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It’s worth noting that Floridians are older, with a median average age of 42, while California registers a peppy 37. More than 21 percent of Florida’s population is at least 65 years old, compared to less than 15 percent in California. That makes Florida more susceptible to a virus that disproportionately preys on older residents.

And while this analysis has focused on the spread of COVID — not the economic consequences — Gov. DeSantis would likely be quick to point out Florida’s 6.5 percent unemployment rate, much lower than California’s 9.3 percent.

But looking at the overall COVID numbers so far, California compares favorably to Florida, especially over longer time periods. The Golden State has a lower rate of cases and deaths when accounting for population. And the hospitalization rate going back to July is a mixed bag, with Florida faring better in recent weeks.

Both Florida and California generally land in the middle of the pack in similar analyses of all 50 states. The numbers will change in coming weeks, perhaps dramatically if states can’t get the current rise in cases under control. But given the COVID results in California and Florida so far, Gov. DeSantis might want to find another punching bag.

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