SUMTER COUNTY, Fla. – Gov. Ron DeSantis made a stop in The Villages Monday to provide an update on the response to the coronavirus pandemic and assure residents that hospitals around Florida have plenty of capacity to handle the virus as well as unrelated illnesses.
His visit comes after a record weekend of newly reported cases in Florida, which now total more than 206,000 since the beginning of March.
Florida Health Department statistics recorded more than 6,300 new cases Monday. The state death toll is approaching 3,900.
While about 45,000 people are being tested per day, double the number from a month ago, that only partly explains the increase as the positivity rate is going up and is near 15%.
Since the outbreak began, 30 Floridians have died per day from the virus — and that number has been rising, averaging 43 deaths per day over the last two weeks.
In Sumter County, the home to The Villages, one of Florida’s largest retirement communities, 436 cases have been confirmed there since March. On Monday, the county reported 16 new cases and 5 new hospitalizations.
DeSantis spoke alongside medical experts at the UF Health The Villages Hospital Monday afternoon where he again stressed that thousands of newly reported cases are in younger, healthy individuals who may not experience any symptoms.
“For the people that are testing positive at the highest rates in Florida, those 20-year-olds and the 30-year-olds, by and large, they’re presenting very mild or asymptomatically and that’s obviously a good thing,” DeSantis said, adding that the largest age with cases in Florida is among 21 years old.
Dr. Michael Lauzardo, Pulmonary Disease specialist UF Health, said COVID-19 adversely affects older people resulting in different outcomes for different age groups.
“COVID presents some unprecedented challenges, things that none of us have seen during our careers, and probably one of the biggest challenges is the wide range of outcomes related to age,” Lauzardo said. “So in other words in one group you see very little bad outcomes and another group you see devastating outcomes.”
Despite Florida’s high positivity rate of new cases, Lauzardo said he remains “optimistic” but “it’s a bounded optimism so it’s got its limits, but I’m still very optimistic.”
Lauzardo said he was optimistic because of Florida’s focus on older age groups including testing in nursing homes, but recent behavior among the state’s younger population is concerning.
“What’s been going on here lately, it’s been behavior,” Lauzardo said. “Much of what we’ve seen lately is behavior driven. And again, yes, we want to see that stay in the age groups but, again, that fear is that unmitigated behaviors, in other words it’s kind of thinking of now and not thinking of tomorrow, (not) thinking of others that spills over into other age groups.”
In the last two weeks, the UF healthcare system has seen a recent spike in cases in employees and students who are returning to work or school, according to Dr. David Nelson, senior vice president for health affairs at UF and president of UF Health.
“We have seen a dramatic increase in number of asymptomatic employees and students, which we just tested 20,000 in the last few weeks, but to put things in perspective we went from point 1% 0.1 to 1%,” Nelson said.
Nelson said UF Health is closely monitoring hospitalizations due to the coronavirus as cases continue to increase.
“Hospitals are getting more active and we will continue to watch those numbers but have many triggers to pull to open up a system if we need to,” Nelson said.
Dr. Jeremy Spry, medical director of the UF Health emergency department at The Villages, said hospital staff are not seeing as many patients as they normally would for other health issues including heart attacks. Doctors are concerned people are putting off life-saving medical care due to COVID-19 fears.
“Patients are waiting, and they’re not coming in,” Spry said. “That’s getting a little bit better but still, you know, to this day we’re seeing patients that should have been here earlier, that has a direct effect on on their overall health.”
Spry said that delaying a doctor’s visit could mean a delay in a cancer diagnoses or treatment for a heart attack which will cause lasting harm.
“My job today is to let the public know and reassure them ... that we have and procedures and screening patients and visitors and staff on a daily basis the hospitals are very, very safe,” Spry said. “We’re here and ready ... If you’ve got anything that you’re concerned about, you know, come in. Don’t delay.”
Five days ahead of Disney World’s reopening, DeSantis said he was not concerned about the increasing positivity rate in Florida and theme parks welcoming guests again. Universal Orlando reopened in June after also being closed since mid-March.
“Disney, I have no doubt it’s going to be a safe environment,” DeSantis said. “The folks who put a premium on safety, that’s showing you that, you know, we’re able to handle this, have society function still when people go into work, but do it in a way that you take some basic precautions and so we’re really impressed with what Universal has done, and I’ve looked at Disney’s plan ... it’s very very thorough.”
During the hour-long update, the governor took about four questions from reporters before leaving. The weekly or daily news conferences hosted by DeSantis around the state are sometimes the only opportunities to ask for updates on COVID-19 along with other issues the state is facing including regarding the troubled unemployment system.
DeSantis did not address if he has further considered issuing a mask mandate and has previously said he doesn’t think it’s enforceable. Last week, Texas became the latest state to issue a mandatory mask order.
As cases continue to rise, some local governments have taken steps on their own to prevent the virus from spreading.
The Miami-Dade County mayor announced Monday the area is closing restaurants to sit-down dining, gyms and other indoor venues weeks after they reopened because of the recent spike in coronavirus cases.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the closure will take effect Wednesday and will also include banquet halls and short-term vacation rentals like those available on Airbnb. Restaurants will still be able to sell takeout and delivery. Bars are already closed statewide and restaurants were limited to 50% capacity indoors.