The state of Florida is making headlines for its disproportionately low number of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
The Sunshine State – with a population exceeding 21 million, third largest, with more people than New York – has reported just 37,500 infections and 1,500 deaths. More than 80% of deaths are said to have affected the elderly.
Some are saying the numbers have something to do with heat and humidity, but that doesn’t explain other warm places like Louisiana. To compare, Florida has reported roughly 176 cases per 100,000 residents; Louisiana, with a population less than a quarter the size of Florida’s, has reported about 644 cases per 100,000 residents.
In New York, there are more than 1,600 cases per 100,000 residents.
Experts point to a variety of reasons for Florida’s success, including individual willingness to follow guidelines, quick action from local governments, and low use of public transportation.
A majority of Florida’s elderly population seems to have self-quarantined before being told to do so. “That decision by an older population may well have saved…tens of thousands of lives,” says Laurence Barton, a crisis management and public safety professor at the University of Central Florida.
“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,” says Tampa Mayor Jane Castor (D).
In St. Petersburg, where I live, people are definitely taking the pandemic seriously. Almost everyone I see is wearing a mask and practicing social distancing. At the grocery store, shoppers follow arrows on the ground to avoid getting too close to one another. The public pool is taking reservations for lap swimming. Restaurants are utilizing widely-spaced outdoor seating or taking orders from a tent outside the front door. Many customers are utilizing UberEats and other delivery services so they can support their favorite restaurants without leaving the house. Delivery services are offering no-contact drop-off.
Most of Florida entered “phase one “of reopening Monday with restaurants, retail stores, and other businesses opening at reduced capacity with social distancing guidelines. Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties remain on lockdown.
“There’s been a lot worse that’s been done to try to promote fear, to promote worst-case scenarios, to drive hysteria,” said Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has been criticized for downplaying the severity of the virus and blamed for slowing the release of medical data. “People should know that worst-case scenario thinking (in Florida) – that has not proven to be true.”
Critics say it is too soon to jump to conclusions about why Florida has lower numbers than expected and have urged Floridians to act with caution.
“The virus is still on the move,” says Roger Shapiro, associate professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard. “And it may still be finding inroads into some of the states and some of the countries that are so far less affected.” Some believe Florida will experience a second wave of infections as businesses reopen.
Governor DeSantis on Wednesday announced plans to expand COVID-19 testing, allowing tests to be performed at pharmacies and introducing a mobile testing facility that can process 500 tests per day.
“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,” said DeSantis.
To date, Florida has performed roughly 416,000 tests (or 2,186 tests per 100,000 residents).