Florida emerges as bright spot in COVID-19 fight

ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida has reported 37,439 positive coronavirus cases and 1,471 deaths, ranking it eighth in the U.S. for the number of confirmed cases despite being the nation’s third most populated state.  

The case and death numbers point to something many may find surprising: Florida has not become as much of a hot spot as other states such as New York, California and Michigan. 

The state has fewer cases per capita than other heavily impacted states, such as Louisiana. According to Johns Hopkins University, Florida has had a total of 176 cases per 100,000 people compared to Louisiana, which has had 644 per 100,000 people. 

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Most of the Sunshine State entered its first phase of reopening on Monday, with restaurants, retail stores and museums allowed to operate at no more 25 percent capacity with social distancing restrictions. 

Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisBattle over voting rights of felons intensifies in Florida Will winter bring a new round of COVID-19 outbreaks? Party of more than 1,000 people broken up by police near Florida State University MORE (R), who took criticism last month for his initial reluctance to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, touted the progress his state has made in a press conference on Tuesday. 

“The fact of the matter is, Florida has met all the gating criteria to be into phase one,” DeSantis said at a press briefing on Tuesday. 

Experts say there are a variety of reasons, including individual willingness to self-quarantine, that could explain why the state appears to have avoided being hit harder by the virus.

The state’s most populated counties in South Florida, as well as Orange County, home to the greater Orlando area, were under stay-at-home orders prior to the governor’s statewide order issued on April 1. 

Early actions from local governments could have contributed to stopping the spread of the virus in the state, according to government and health officials. 

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“We put a safer-at-home order quickly, and then tried our best to over-communicate that so that everyone understood the significance of it,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor (D) told The Hill. “Our community understood the level of personal responsibility and took it very seriously.” 

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez (R) said DeSantis’s initial focus on South Florida played an early role in combating the spread. 

“He very wisely understood that the situation in southeast Florida was different than the rest of the state,” Gimenez said. “He’s been right on. He’s known that it’s a big, big state and that the orders cannot be uniform throughout the state.” 

Florida has a large elderly population, which raised fears it could suffer from a high number of COVID-19 fatalities. Images of young people partying over spring break in the state compounded some fears.

But experts say many in the state appeared to take a diligent approach on their own to COVID-19.

“Many older people self-quarantined before being told to do so by the governor,” said Laurence Barton, a crisis management and public safety professor at the University of Central Florida. “That decision by an older population may have well saved, in my opinion, tens of thousands of lives.” 

Cindy Prins, a health care epidemiology professor at the University of Florida, said that coverage of Florida’s crowded beaches over spring break in March also likely drove a number of the state’s residents to self-quarantine in an effort to protect themselves. 

“People got some information about what we should be doing as opposed to what we were seeing,” Prins said. 

Other experts say they are perplexed by the coronavirus’s impact on Florida so far, citing luck as a potential factor. 

“Other aspects are just luck. It hasn’t gotten to some places yet, but it may still be on its way,” said Roger Shapiro, associate professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. 

He warned that Floridians should not get a false sense of security.

“The virus is still on the move, and it can still travel to new places in the world, and it may still be finding inroads into some of the states and some of the countries that are so far less affected,” he said. 

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Government officials and public health experts in the state have continued to urge caution, citing the possibility of a second wave in the latter half of the year. 

“I don’t think you need to totally take your foot off the pedal,” said Panama City Mayor Greg Brudnicki said. “People don’t need to get this false sense of security that we don’t need to do the social distancing and do the things we need to do.” 

Bay County, which includes Panama City, has only seen 76 positive coronavirus cases. 

Experts also point to the importance of testing, which Florida officials say they are looking to improve across the state. 

Johns Hopkins University ranked Florida 22nd in per capita testing, performing a total of 2,186 tests per 100,000 people as of Tuesday. 

DeSantis announced new plans to expand testing in the state on Wednesday, permitting tests to be performed at pharmacies as well as the random checking of blood donations for antibodies that show whether someone has recovered from the virus. 

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The governor also introduced on Wednesday the state’s first mobile testing facility, through which 500 rapid tests, each lasting 45 minutes, would be processed a day. The tests are currently available at the Hard Rock Stadium site in Miami Gardens and will soon be available in Orlando and Jacksonville. 

“Obviously the hospitals need it, but then the next things are the nursing homes and the long-term care facilities because it can really be a game-changer and if applied properly can save lives,” DeSantis said. 

Nathaniel Weixel contributed.