Florida emerges as world's new epicenter for COVID-19

Florida has emerged as a global epicenter of the latest coronavirus surge, raising questions about the safety of major events that relocated to the state.

As coronavirus cases surged throughout much of the Northeast in April and May, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisOn The Money: White House warns there's likely no deal with no agreement by Friday | More generous unemployment benefits lead to better jobs: study | 167K workers added to private payrolls in July DeSantis blames Rick Scott for 'pointless roadblocks' in Florida unemployment system Trump notes GOP governor when asked why he backs mail-in voting in Florida MORE (R) declared victory.

Florida was one of the last states to impose a stay-at-home order, and one of the first to reopen. DeSantis earned praise from President TrumpDonald John TrumpLincoln Project ad dubs Jared Kushner the 'Secretary of Failure' Pence: Chief Justice Roberts 'has been a disappointment to conservatives' Twitter bans Trump campaign until it deletes tweet with COVID-19 misinformation MORE for his response to the pandemic and attacked the media for fearmongering after the state reopened its beaches.

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“When you look at some of the most draconian orders that have been issued in some of these states and compare Florida in terms of our hospitalizations ... I mean, you go from D.C., Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois — you name it — Florida has done better,” DeSantis said from the Oval Office in late April.

Buoyed by the low infection rates and encouraged by the White House, the state’s first phase of reopening included restaurants, gyms, barbershops and large spectator sporting events, with reduced capacity.

Professional sports leagues, including the NBA and Major League Soccer, announced they would resume their seasons in Florida. The Republican National Convention was moved to Jacksonville from Charlotte, N.C., because there would be fewer restrictions.

But weeks later, infections are skyrocketing. Some sports teams have already arrived in the state, and league leaders are facing questions about whether it’s safe to continue with their plans.

In an interview with Fortune magazine, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged the situation in Florida was not the same as when the league made its decision to play in Disney World.

But Silver said he wasn’t sure what the threshold would be to cancel the remainder of the season that’s supposed to resume July 30.

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On Wednesday, Florida reported nearly 10,000 new cases. There are nearly 220,500 positive cases statewide, and the test positivity rate has been above 14 percent for more than a week.

Adding to the trouble, hospitals across the state are running out of beds in the intensive care units, although state officials say there is still plenty of capacity and hospitals have the ability to add surge beds.

According to a state dashboard from the Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA), hospitals have less than 15 percent ICU capacity available. Statewide, 42 hospitals have no ICU beds available, though that number is down from the 56 hospitals reported on Tuesday.

DeSantis has refused to release data on daily hospitalizations, despite pledging to do so. Florida is one of the only states that doesn’t publicly release that information.

The AHCA tracks bed capacity, and the state Department of Health reports the total number of patients admitted to hospitals, but neither report the number of people actively in a hospital at a given time.

Florida is hardly alone in struggling to handle a spike in coronavirus cases, but it has one of the worst outbreaks to date.

The virus is surging in more than half the states across the country, and there are now more than 3 million cases nationwide. According to a New York Times analysis, Florida has had the second worst outbreak in the world in the last seven days, trailing only Arizona.

DeSantis has encouraged mask use and physical distancing, but he has not issued a statewide mask mandate.

Most of Florida’s major cities, like Miami, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and St. Petersburg, require masks, as does Orange County, which includes Orlando.

DeSantis has consistently downplayed the extent of the outbreak, noting that many of the newly infected are younger people who are generally healthier. He has also attributed the extremely high number of cases to an increase in testing.

“There’s no need to be fearful,” DeSantis said Monday.

Public health experts caution that older, more vulnerable people are still at risk even if younger people are driving infection rates right now.

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“Young people don’t live in a bubble,” said Richard Oberhelman, associate dean for global health at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans.

“They have interactions with their parents, they have interactions with work colleagues, and so there are opportunities for spread. And we know that there’s a lot of a more asymptomatic transmission than we appreciate,” Oberhelman said.

Jeff Johnson, director of AARP Florida, said he was concerned about the staff members of long-term care facilities who live in areas where the virus is spreading rapidly among the community.

“They’re doing what they can to provide for their family, and they are not intentionally putting themselves in harm’s way,” Johnson said. But if a community doesn’t have control of the virus, the staff can easily become infected and spread the disease to the vulnerable population.

Despite the rise in cases, Disney World is reopening this week. Universal Studios reopened at the beginning of June.

DeSantis said he has no concerns about the health and safety of people in the parks.

“The theme parks are doing great,” DeSantis said Monday. “When you have all the different procedures they have in place, it’s a safe environment.”