FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Florida's rapidly increasing number of coronavirus cases is turning Miami into the “epicenter of the pandemic,” a top doctor warned Monday, while an epidemiologist called the region's situation “extremely grave.”
Those assessments came as Florida recorded more than 12,000 new confirmed coronavirus cases Monday after a record-setting weekend, a spike that partly reflects the larger number of tests being performed but also a high percentage of those returning positive. The state set a national record with more than 15,000 cases reported Sunday.
Gov. Ron DeSantis acknowledged Monday that the disease is spreading and urged people to take precautions such as wearing masks in public places, social distancing and avoiding crowds.
“We have to address the virus with steady resolve. We can’t get swept away in fear, we have to understand what is going on, understand that we have a long road ahead but we also have to understand that within the context of the moment,” he said during a Miami press conference.
While the outbreak has been spreading through much of the state, it has hit South Florida particularly hard, both now and throughout the pandemic. Its three counties — Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach — make up about a quarter of the state's population but have been responsible for about half the new cases.
Florida International University epidemiologist Dr. Aileen Marty called the region's situation “extremely grave,” saying the public is not taking this virus seriously enough, ignoring the guidelines DeSantis and others have been pushing.
“They have not adhered to guidelines,” Marty said at an online press conference with Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez. “They have been in those closed spaces without taking the appropriate precautions, and that’s the main reason we are where we are.”
The chief for infection prevention at Jackson Health System, Dr. Lilian Abbo, described nurses and doctors working around the clock and some getting sick.
“We really need to work on this together,” she said. “Miami is now the epicenter of the pandemic. What we were seeing in Wuhan (China) six months ago. Now, we are there.”
There's at least one glimmer of hope for Florida overall: The positivity rate for tests has been just over 11% the last two days. That is still four times the 2.3% rate the state had in late May, but a drop from the near 20% of last week. Officials have said they want to get the rate below 5%, which is when they believe spread is less likely and measures are taking hold.
DeSantis said it isn't clear whether the downward positivity rate of the weekend will continue.
“We will see if that is a trend or whether that would be something that is short lived,” he said.
The state added another 35 deaths Monday, with the one-week average remaining at 71 per day. The daily rate had been 30 deaths three weeks ago, and crept up to 44 last week before skyrocketing with a state record 120 deaths reported Thursday. Overall, 4,381 people have died in Florida from the coronavirus since March 1.
The increase in coronavirus cases has filled some Florida hospitals, or brought them close to their capacity.
At Cleveland Clinic in Broward County, less than 10% of its 230 beds are available, according to the state, and nine of its 48 intensive care beds were available Monday morning.
Dr. Rodolfo Blandon, its president, said he expects the number of ICU patients will increase through the end of the month, a result of the recent spike in cases.
"We know that these patients will likely seek medical care two to four weeks after they test positive,” he said.
His biggest concern is having enough nurses as coronavirus patients require extensive care — 20 are being brought in from other states to help.
On the positive side, Blandon said the virus seems to becoming less aggressive as it mutates — many patients aren't getting as sick as others were in March and April, and he said the drug Remdesivir has been a promising treatment.
He said if the numbers keep spiking, he suspects there would have to be a roll back of some of the current freedoms. After reopening its economy with restrictions throughout May, Florida recently re-closed bars because customers weren't wearing masks or practicing social distancing. Miami-Dade County again recently prohibited restaurants from having indoor seating.
Still, Walt Disney World reopened over the weekend with limited crowds, making it the last of the state's four major theme parks to do so.