Florida’s COVID-19 hospitalizations and cases again jumped significantly last week as the vaccination rate in rural counties where some of the worst outbreaks are occurring remains well below state and national averages.
About 5,300 Floridians are now hospitalized with COVID-19, a 65% jump since last week and nearly a tripling since June 14, when 1,845 were hospitalized, the Florida Hospital Association said. Officials have said more than 95% of those hospitalized were not vaccinated.
On Tuesday, the CDC reversed course, recommending that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in communities where the coronavirus is surging. The CDC also recommended indoor masks for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status, in direct conflict with Gov. Ron DeSantis who is doubling down against mask-wearing in schools.
About 60% of residents 12 and older are vaccinated, according to the state, equal to the national rate. But the percentage of vaccinated adults remains low in the state’s rural, strongly conservative north, where some counties are at about 30%, as residents don’t trust the vaccination program but have high infection rates.
More than 73,000 new coronavirus cases were reported statewide over the past week, according to the state health department, nearly seven times the 12,000 reported a month ago. Florida’s numbers had been falling since mid-January when 100,000 new cases per week were reported and 8,200 were hospitalized just as the vaccination program began.
“This thing got politicized nationally, and we’re paying the price,” said Jared Moskowitz, the state’s former emergency management director.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has been vaccinated, this week encouraged the remaining unvaccinated Floridians to get their shots.
“If you are vaccinated, fully vaccinated, the chance of you getting seriously ill or dying from COVID is effectively zero,” DeSantis said. “These vaccines are saving lives.”
But DeSantis has not returned to daily reporting of COVID-19 infections in the state. Florida is among several states that scaled back their reporting of COVID-19 statistics this month, just as cases across the country started to skyrocket, depriving the public of real-time information on outbreaks, cases, hospitalizations and deaths in their communities.
The shift to weekly instead of daily reporting in Florida, Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota is notable during a pandemic in which coronavirus dashboards have become a staple for Americans closely tracking case counts and trends to navigate a crisis that has killed more than 600,000 people in the U.S.
Other governments have gone in the other direction and released more information, with Washington, D.C., last week adding a dashboard on breakthrough cases to show the number of residents who contracted the virus after getting vaccines. Many states have recently gone to reporting virus numbers only on weekdays.
When Florida changed the frequency of its virus reporting earlier this month, officials said it made sense given the decreasing number of cases and the increasing number of people being vaccinated.
Cases started soaring soon after, and Florida earlier this week made up one-fifth of the country’s new coronavirus infections. As a result, the state’s weekly releases – typically done on Friday afternoons – have consequences for the country’s understanding of the current summer surge, with no statewide COVID-19 stats coming out of the virus hotspot six days a week. Hospitals are starting to run out of space in parts of the state.
With cases rising, Democrats and other critics have urged state officials and DeSantis to resume daily outbreak updates.
“There was absolutely no reason to eliminate the daily updates beyond an effort to pretend like there are no updates,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat from the Orlando area.
The trend of reducing data reporting has alarmed infectious disease specialists who believe that more information is better during a pandemic. People have come to rely on state virus dashboards to help make decisions about whether to attend large gatherings or wear masks in public, and understanding the level of risk in the community affects how people respond to virus restrictions and calls to get vaccinated.
“We know that showing the data to others actually is important because the actions that businesses take, the actions that schools take, the actions that civic leaders take, the actions that community leaders take, the actions that each of us individually take are all influenced by our perception of what the risk is out there,” said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, who leads the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco.
More than 38,000 Floridians have died with COVID-19 since the pandemic began in March 2020, including an average of 33 per day over the past week. That’s compared with 24 per day earlier this month. In late January, 185 Floridians per day were dying.
Still, despite the recent surge, DeSantis said the state will not return to government mandates – in May, he barred municipalities from imposing their own and banned businesses from requiring proof of vaccination. He said it is up to individuals on how they deal with the pandemic.
“We have a situation where we have three vaccines that have been widely available for months and months now, and people need to make decisions that are best for them,” he said. “To have the government come in and to lock anyone down or restrict anyone is totally unacceptable.”
The state’s Democrats and their allies say that’s the wrong approach and have accused DeSantis of putting his 2022 reelection campaign and possible 2024 presidential run ahead of Floridians’ health. They want cities and counties to be able to again impose their own mandates and restrictions, such as requiring masks in indoor public places.
“The surge is ... being facilitated by misguided orders from Tallahassee that block local leaders and businesses from pro-actively protecting individuals from unnecessary exposure,” the 10 Democratic members of Florida’s congressional delegation wrote in a letter to DeSantis.
Florida doctors affiliated with the Committee to Protect Health Care, a progressive group, criticized DeSantis for attacking Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top government infectious disease official who has pushed for more cautious policies than the governor.
They said DeSantis’ recent mocking of Fauci’s errant first pitch at a Washington Nationals game a year ago and his reelection campaign’s sale of merchandise emblazoned with “Don’t Fauci my Florida” detracts from the serious message he should send about the virus. They accused him of dividing Floridians on an issue that should unite them.
“Why is he undermining infectious disease experts and their recommendations? The consequences of (his) leadership has been a steep rise in COVID-19 cases and an increased number of Floridians dying,” said Dr. Frederick Southwick, chief of the University of Florida medical school’s infectious disease division.
DeSantis has argued that his COVID-19 leadership has been effective, protecting nursing home patients, seniors and others of the most vulnerable populations.
Because of the new outbreak, several hospitals across the state are reinstituting visitation restrictions. Jackson Health, the state’s largest provider, has barred visitors for most of its patients at its hospitals. Others are limiting visitors to one per patient. AdventHealth in central Florida has temporarily stopped doing inpatient elective surgeries.
Jackson said it had 143 COVID-19 patients last week compared with 66 in early July, a 117% increase.