Officials continue to urge diligence against virus

As a line slowly moves beyond him registered nurse Ernesto Protieles, right, of Sarasota, samples for COVID-19 Monday, July 6, 2020 at Laurel Manor Recreation Center.

As Florida reported 93 more COVID-19 deaths on Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said the toll likely would be much worse if the state had not made changes to protect residents of long-term care centers. He defended his decision to reopen the state in early May. “I think there was really no justification to not move forward,” DeSantis said during a visit to Orlando.

The number of Florida deaths per day has reached a seven-day average of about 59, up from about 33 three weeks ago, and approaching the deadliest period in the pandemic in early May, when that average briefly touched 60. As of Friday, 4,102 people have died in Florida, while the number of confirmed cases of the virus climbed to 240,710. A total of 11,433 new cases were reported Friday — just 25 shy of the one-day pandemic high reported on July 4. Florida has become one of the virus hot spots to flare up across the U.S., where the more than 3.13 million reported infections is the highest total in the world. More than 133,000 people have died, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University. In the spring, Florida appeared to be “flattening the curve” as theme parks shuttered, sugar sand beaches closed and residents heeded orders to stay home. Now, it’s almost as if that never happened.

“We thought maybe we could keep this thing under wraps. And that worked for a little bit of time,” Dr. Jason Wilson, an E.R. physician at Tampa General Hospital, said Wednesday during a conversation with Tampa Mayor Jane Castor. “But eventually ... it caught up to us.”

Miami-Dade, Florida’s worst-hit county, reported 58,341 virus cases and 1,133 deaths as of Friday. In The Villages and surrounding communities, cases are substantially lower, according to the Florida Department of Health: 589 cases and 18 deaths in Sumter County; 1,198 cases and 26 deaths in Lake County; and 1,307 cases and 15 deaths in Marion County,

From Miami to Jacksonville and Tampa, hospitals in June and July have seen their numbers of coronavirus patients triple, with new patients outpacing those being discharged. A record 435 newly hospitalized patients were reported Friday to have tested positive for the virus, though they include people seeking hospital care for other reasons and are not all symptomatic.

More than 45% of intensive care units in Florida hospitals were at capacity or had fewer than 10% of their beds available as of Friday, the state Agency for Health Care Administration reported on its website.

DeSantis said that when he made the decision to reopen much of the state in May, he said, COVID-19 infections “had very, very low prevalence,” especially in the northern parts of the state.

Even now, he said, hospitals across the state have between 10,000 and 13,000 available beds.

“We have a situation where you got a lot of beds available. No major system, nobody that we’ve seen yet, has even gone to the surge level,” he said during his Orlando press conference.

The governor, who early on instituted virus testing of staff and residents at longterm care facilities, said staff are now being tested every two weeks, and that the latest testing results are showing a low infection rate of 2.4%. He said the testing regime is detecting sick workers and keeping infections out of facilities where thousands of older Floridians live.

Florida added a new column to a dashboard with hospitalization statistics on Friday to include a page with a county-by-county breakdown for patients being treated primarily for coronavirus. Statewide, there were 6,806 such COVID-19 patients in hospitals.

The figure doesn’t include patients admitted for other reasons who test positive while hospitalized.

With cases rising, hospital networks are scrambling to hire more workers to expand their COVID units. Last week, hospitals in several cities announced they would again halt or reduce nonemergency procedures to free up space.

Wilson and other health experts believe the spike was sparked in large part by young people who weren’t experiencing symptoms and were more likely to take fewer precautions while gathering at reopened bars and crowded beaches.

“We saw the floodgates open really for young people having what we call asymptomatic or presymptomatic spread,” he said. “Three weeks later, we are starting to see everyone else starting to get the virus as well.”

The state’s predicament echoes that of other current hot spots. Texas, which is marking its deadliest week of the pandemic, on Thursday reported a record daily death toll of more than 100, a new high for hospitalizations for the 10th consecutive day, and a nearly 16% positive test rate, its highest yet.

In Arizona, hospitals were at nearly 90% capacity, with a record 3,437 patients hospitalized as of Wednesday, and a record number of those, 575, on ventilators, health officials said. Earlier in the week, a record high number of 871 patients filled ICU beds.

In Miami-Dade, a few of the smaller hospitals have run out of ICU beds completely, though countywide there were still about 14% available as of Friday, the state health agency reported. Even hospitals with some of the biggest ICUs in the state are stretched: Tampa General currently has 70 patients who are infected, half of whom are in ICU beds, Wilson said.

Chad Neilsen, the infection prevention director for UF Health Jacksonville hospital, anticipates the hospital will run out of rapid test kits in about two weeks or maybe sooner because manufacturers can’t keep up with demand.

He said the hospital instead will have to rely on commercial labs, which can take several days to issue results. Quest, a company that operates many such labs, said this week that it is potentially facing an even longer turnaround because of high demand.

A doctor’s group gathered outside the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee on Friday morning to urge him to issue an order mandating the use of face masks statewide.

Physicians for Social Responsibility said it had gathered more than 1,000 signatures from physicians across Florida calling for the mandatory use of masks in public places as an important step in controlling the spread of the virus. In most of the state’s heavily populated areas, local mask orders are already in place.

DeSantis has thus far resisted those calls, arguing that local governments must decide for themselves if stricter levels of protection are needed. Florida’s most heavily populated municipalities mostly have done so already.

“One size does not fit all in Florida,” said his spokeswoman, Helen Ferre, who also cast doubt on the effectiveness of mandates, noting that the Miami area has had face mask rules in place since April, yet the area continues to be a COVID-19 hot spot.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, suggested on Thursday that Florida might have opened up too quickly.

“Certainly Florida I know, you know, I think jumped over a couple of checkpoints,” he said.