Florida has some explaining to do about its recent COVID record | Editorial
Why does Florida have so many more COVID deaths than other large states?
Medical workers at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater, Florida, work to stabilize a COVID-19 patient.
Medical workers at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater, Florida, work to stabilize a COVID-19 patient. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Tampa Bay Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Sept. 30, 2021

Florida had a terrible summer for COVID deaths, and early fall hasn’t fared much better. In August alone, more than 9,000 residents died, accounting for one in every six of the state’s deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Florida is a big state, with the third most residents, so a high death tally is not unexpected. But in the almost six months since every adult in Florida became eligible for vaccination, the Sunshine State is way ahead of the nation’s other five largest states in a race no one wants to win. Florida, for instance, had three times as many COVID deaths as California, despite having about half the number of residents.

COVID deaths since April 1 (ending Wednesday):

Florida - 19,590

Texas - 14,169

California - 6,408

New York - 4,930

Pennsylvania - 4,021

Illinois - 3,839

The picture gets grimmer when accounting for population, a Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board analysis of COVID data found. In the last six months, Florida has recorded nearly 90 deaths for every 100,000 residents, by far the highest among the six largest states. Florida’s death rate over that period is more than three times higher than in New York and more than five times higher than in California. In fact, only Texas has a rate that is at least half of Florida’s.

Why the huge difference? That’s harder to know for sure at this point in the pandemic. Supporters of mask wearing and vaccines will point to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ active opposition to mask mandates and his too-tepid support for vaccines. Of course, the answer is not that simple.

Florida’s vaccination rates, for instance, aren’t great, but they aren’t terrible compared to other states. As of Wednesday, just over 57 percent of all Floridians were fully vaccinated, slightly higher than the 55.4 percent national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Florida is doing better than either Texas or Illinois but is well behind New York.

A deeper look, though, reveals a few chinks in Florida’s already marginal vaccination armor. About 84 percent of Florida residents 65 years and over are fully vaccinated. Again, that’s slightly better than the national average, but it means about 700,000 older Floridians remain less than fully vaccinated, which makes them easy pickings for a virus that has ravaged older age groups. Some of the unvaccinated who have survived a bout of COVID will have strong — though likely diminishing — natural immunity, but even that only helps so much. Breakthrough cases are rare, but they kill older unprotected people at a higher rate than they kill the young. And Florida’s eye-popping death rate in recent months shows that too few people have adequate immunity from the virus — naturally or through vaccination.

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Florida also has a larger gap than most other states between the percentage of residents partially vaccinated and those fully vaccinated; they received one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine but haven’t received the second. One dose can help keep COVID at bay, but two doses adds significantly more protection. In the COVID war, too many Floridians are wearing body armor but they remain unnecessarily vulnerable by refusing to put on the Kevlar helmet.

The state also has a mediocre record of vaccinating 12- to 17-year-olds, the Times analysis found. Florida ranks 29th among the states, with all five of the other large states in the comparison boasting higher vaccination rates for that age group. The sluggish response doesn’t bode well for Florida’s ability to get 5- to 11-year-olds vaccinated when their time comes. Kids rarely die from COVID, but they can spread the virus to vulnerable adults.

Florida’s older population leaves the state statistically more vulnerable to increased COVID deaths than the other five states in the comparison. Florida also has a higher percentage of people in nursing homes, another particularly vulnerable population. But vaccines should have helped mitigate that disadvantage, and nearly every adult has had access to free vaccinations since April.

Like past COVID waves, the recent surge killed more people over 65 years old, but the age breakdown shifted dramatically over the summer. In the first three months of the year, the 25-64 age group made up just 17 percent of Florida’s COVID deaths, an analysis of National Center for Health Statistics shows. From April to the end of August, that number climbed to 37 percent. In other words, the under 65 group’s slice of the pie more than doubled from just a few months earlier. Deaths in the 25-44 age group rose from 52 in April to 760 in August. That age group’s vaccination rate is far below the state average.

Gov. DeSantis has touted the “seasonality” theory — that the state is more susceptible to COVID infections in the summer when the stifling heat drives people indoors, where the virus spreads more easily. Maybe that will be part of the answer to Florida’s summer of death. Maybe we just got hit sooner, and the other states are about to feel COVID’s wrath. Maybe there’s something else about Florida’s population that drove its death rate so much higher than those other five states, or future research might definitively show that it came down to Florida’s approach to masking and vaccinations.

For now, Florida’s recent surge in deaths appears to have peaked, but if the previous COVID waves are a road map, it will take weeks for the state’s death rate to fall to where it was at the beginning of the summer. In the meantime, here’s to staying safe — and healthy.

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