“Toward the end of the summer, Florida became the epicenter for America’s recent Covid-19 wave — reporting more hospitalizations and deaths than any other state in the country. But there was and still is surprisingly little certainty, among experts, over one question about Florida’s surge: Why did it happen?
The most common explanation for the outbreaks in the South that we saw over the recent summer was the low vaccination rates across the region. It’s true vaccination rates are low across the South: Seven of the 10 states with the lowest vaccination rates are in the region. And lower vaccine rates do correlate with more Covid-19 cases and deaths.
But Florida defies the regional trend. The state ranks 20th for full vaccination in the US, with 56 percent of people fully vaccinated — not great, but a little above the national rate. At the peak of its outbreak in mid-August, Florida had fully vaccinated about 51 percent of its population — again, not great, but in line with the national rate.
Maybe Florida loosened restrictions too quickly and more aggressively? It’s certainly true that Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken a more hands-off approach than leaders in blue states, but it’s not clear if this actually led to differences in how the public behaved.
According to Google’s mobility data, Floridians around mid-August were about 14 percent less likely to travel to retail and recreational outlets compared to pre-pandemic times. That’s almost the same as Californians, and actually lower than New Yorkers. Neither New York (about 59 percent fully vaccinated at the time) nor California (about 54 percent fully vaccinated at the time — not much higher than Florida) saw surges anywhere as bad as Florida’s in August.
The same trend holds for other metrics that measure precaution. Based on Carnegie Mellon University’s COVIDcast, through August, Floridians were more likely to mask up than New Yorkers or residents in other states that didn’t see nearly as big Covid-19 surges.
Based on OpenTable’s restaurant reservation data, Florida was back to pre-pandemic numbers for restaurant reservations around mid-August, but that wasn’t too different from the US as a whole. Some states, like New Jersey and Connecticut, equaled or surpassed their pre-pandemic baseline for restaurant reservations and didn’t see anywhere near the surge that Florida did (although both benefited from significantly higher vaccination rates than Florida).”
“We don’t know everything about why Covid-19 cases rise, and we don’t know everything about why they fall, either. David Leonhardt and Ashley Wu at the New York Times recently demonstrated that the coronavirus appears to follow two-month cycles in its rises and falls.”
“This isn’t to say that nothing matters in the fight against Covid-19. We know vaccines work to protect people from severe illness, including against the delta variant. Social distancing, masking, and restrictions do, too. Chances are Florida’s surge would have been much smaller if it had done better on all these fronts.
But Florida’s example complicates any story of recent Covid-19 surges that focuses solely on reopenings and vaccinations. Something else seems to be going on, and experts aren’t totally sure what. “There are things that, to be honest, we don’t fully understand,” Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told me.”