Florida’s mysterious Covid-19 surge

“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.”

How Florida’s massive Covid-19 spike got so bad

“It’s no mystery what’s happening in Florida right now — or why.

The state is experiencing its worst surge of the pandemic. Last week, it was averaging nearly 25,000 new cases every day. The previous high, in January, was about 18,000. More than 17,000 Floridians are hospitalized with Covid-19, another record; around 230 people are dying every day. Florida leads all states in the number of hospitalizations and deaths per capita.”

“In some ways, what’s happening in Florida right now is a microcosm of the current surge across America: a middling vaccination rate has collided with a more contagious version of the virus. And it’s doing so in a state where political leaders continue to insist people should act as if the pandemic is over — even as more people are dying every day than any point in the past year.”

DeSantis asks protesters to stay out of Florida roads in reversal on anti-riot law

“DeSantis pushed the ‘anti-riot” bill in the aftermath of last year’s racial justice protests that spread across the nation — and even cited protesters blocking roads as a justification for the measure that includes extra penalties for people accused of participating in riots and violent protests.

But Democrats and other critics of the law — which is being challenged in federal court — accused DeSantis and other Republicans of supporting selective enforcement of the measure. They said the measure was designed to target Black protesters upset with police shootings. But now DeSantis and other GOP leaders are in a difficult position since they support the aims of many of the demonstrators backing Cuba in Miami and elsewhere.

This week, demonstrators blocked major roadways for hours in Miami-Dade County without any reports of arrests or citations. But the Tampa Bay Times reported on Wednesday that two demonstrators in Tampa were held in jail overnight without bail because of a provision in the new law.
On Tuesday, DeSantis sidestepped a question about whether authorities should arrest people blocking roads as part of protests in solidarity with Cuba. Those demonstrations popped up in several cities as Cuban Americans voice their support to Cuban protesters who are demanding an end to the authoritarian regime that has controlled the island nation for the past six decades.

On Thursday, the governor reversed course and said that authorities could not “tolerate” people blocking roads.
“It’s dangerous for you to be shutting down a thoroughfare,” DeSantis said during a press conference with Florida GOP Reps. María Salazar and Carlos Giménez calling on the Biden administration to help restore Internet access to Cuba. “You’re also putting other people in jeopardy. You don’t know if an emergency vehicle needs to get somewhere and then obviously it’s just disrespectful to make people stand in traffic.”

DeSantis repeated his assertion that his ‘anti-riot’ bill was meant to crackdown on violent protesters.”

California mandated masks. Florida opened its restaurants. Did any of it matter?

“the science on masks is clear: They work. Even experts I spoke with who think harsh lockdowns may have been counterproductive say indoor mask mandates were clearly effective.

“Indoor masking guidance was proven to be effective,” Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the John Hopkins Center for Health Security, told me. “When you look at it all, I think that is probably going to be the one that shows the most effect. … Most things can be done safely if people socially distance and wear a mask indoors in an unvaccinated setting.”

The available research supports that conclusion. In a study published in March 2021, CDC researchers examined case and death rates at the county level after mask mandates were put into place and found the mandates were associated with slower transmission.”

“An earlier study, published in June 2020 in Health Affairs, had reached the same conclusion. Its authors estimated that mask mandates had averted some 200,000 Covid-19 cases by mid-May; at the time, the US had counted less than 2 million cases, indicating that the mask mandates had a meaningful effect in slowing the virus down early in the pandemic.

Some commentators have questioned why dire warnings about what would happen when Texas lifted its mask mandate for good in March 2021 never materialized. But the mandate’s rollback took place in a very different context from the spring of 2020.

For one, many more people now have protection from the virus, between vaccinations and prior infections. More widespread immunity was already an obstacle for the virus.

But on top of that, because the pandemic has become so politicized, people have already sorted themselves into their different camps, experts indicated — and so a state mandate might not have changed behavior. By now, you are already either a mask-wearer or you’re not. A government mandate probably isn’t going to affect someone’s behavior in June 2021 as much as it would have a year ago, especially after enforcement has been nonexistent.”

That 60 Minutes Story on Ron DeSantis and Florida’s Vaccine Rollout Is Wildly Flawed

“A 60 Minutes story on Florida’s vaccine rollout accused Ron DeSantis, the state’s Republican governor, of making a corrupt deal with Publix to distribute the vaccine. CBS reporter Sharyn Alfonsi noted that the grocery chain donated $100,000 to DeSantis’ election campaign and suggested the lucrative vaccination contract was a “pay-to-play” scheme.

It’s an accusation that doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny: For one thing, Publix—like many large corporations—gives money to both Republicans and Democrats. But more importantly, the decision to have Publix coordinate vaccination was not even made by the governor’s office. According to Jared Moskowitz, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, it was his offices that recommended Publix. Moskowitz, a Democrat, has said that Publix was the best store for the job, since it has more than 800 locations across the state.

Indeed, when Alfonsi cornered DeSantis at a press conference and asked him about Publix, he gave a lengthy explanation that largely undercut her claims. He pointed out, for instance, that it wasn’t true that Publix got the vaccines first: CVS and Walgreens had already been contracted to coordinate vaccination for long-term care facilities.”

“Remarkably, CBS cut this portion of DeSantis’ response. In fact, the 60 Minutes story reduced his two-minute answer to just a few seconds.”

“This was not a case of a journalist condensing the essence of what a source told her: Alfonsi blatantly ignored the part of the governor’s statement that clashed with her narrative, and instead included a brief comment that made it sound like he became combative with her for no reason.”

Florida becomes the first state in the South to vote yes on a $15 minimum wage

“Florida voters have said yes to increasing the state’s minimum wage to $15.

They did so by approving Amendment 2, which increases the state’s minimum wage from $8.56 to $15 by September 30, 2026, according to the New York Times and the Associated Press. The change is incremental, with employers being asked to increase wages, essentially, by $1 a year. The amendment also specifies that as of September 30, 2027, Florida must adjust its state minimum wage based on the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W), meaning wages will be adjusted up or down as consumer prices change. The same measure is used to calculate changes in Social Security benefits.”

Florida, Corona.

“So why was I once again sanguine about Florida? Because despite the surge in positive cases, the number of deaths remained extremely low, and I believed that deaths were the most concrete way to measure the pandemic’s toll. It’s not that hospitalization data isn’t important, but it’s hard to come by and often unreliable. Some people have reported long-lasting and debilitating symptoms, but we don’t know yet whether they are common or rare. All through June, the average number of daily Covid-19 deaths in Florida remained below 40. I thought then — and I think now — that that was remarkable.

In retrospect, it’s clear that DeSantis — as well as governors in Texas, Arizona, California and a lot of other states — reopened too early because they too were swayed by their low death rates and were eager to get their economies back on track. They didn’t anticipate how opening bars, in particular, would spread the virus. They weren’t willing to get tough on people who refused to wear masks. Perhaps most important, they didn’t pay enough attention to the reproduction rate — that is, the estimate of the number of people each Covid-positive person would infect. (In Florida, according to one model, it is 1.42)”

“When you look at the states that are facing surges right now — Florida, Texas, Arizona, Mississippi, Nevada, and others(3)— they follow the same pattern. They saw very little of the virus when the Northeast was getting crushed. They let their guard down — even bragged about their success. Then, when it turned out that virus had simply taken its sweet time making its way south and west, it took them too long to awaken to the threat.

Although the positive case numbers are terrible across the board, the death rates are still low. Texas has 347,000 cases but only 4,100 deaths. Mississippi has 45,000 cases and 1,400 deaths. Arizona has 149,000 cases, and less than 3,000 deaths. Florida’s 380,000 positive cases had yielded 5,435 deaths as of Wednesday.

Whenever I bring this up, I’m reminded that deaths are a lagging indicator. But this surge began in early June; if the virus were acting the same way it did in the Northeast, the death rate would be far higher by now. I also realize that doctors know a lot more about how to treat Covid-19. But that can’t be the whole answer either. For reasons not yet understood, the virus simply isn’t killing as many people in these states as it did in New York and New Jersey in March and April. The one thing we can say with some certainty is that it’s not the governors’ doing.”