Mark R. Howard
COVID - Some Perspective
Looking back, and ahead
A real understanding of Florida’s experience with the coronavirus may have to wait for the historians — news coverage is so politicized that it’s hard to get any sense of context from the reportage on what’s going on and why. Sifting and sorting through the data and the mess, I think, however, it’s possible to say a few things that will hold up as we move forward.
» Florida will almost certainly pass through the corona-crisis without the hospital system meltdown that occurred in the northeastern states. And even after the “surge” in cases in July, Florida’s death rate will remain relatively low. As of late July, Florida was experiencing around 28 deaths per 100,000 compared to 177 in New Jersey, 168 in New York and 124 in Massachusetts. That’s the lowest death rate per 100,000 among the 10 most densely populated states, and the seventh-lowest rate among the 10 most populous states. Even if deaths continued at record levels in the state between the time I’m writing this and the time you’re reading it, Florida probably won’t even move into the top 20 states in terms of death rate.
» Florida’s relatively low population density may have helped. There is a stronger correlation between the density of a state’s population and a high death rate than the size of a state’s population and its death rate. Florida is the eighth most densely populated state, much less densely populated than most of the states ahead of it. And by my reckoning, as of the end of July, the 10 most densely populated states (which include low-population Rhode Island and Delaware and don’t include Texas, California, North Carolina, Georgia and Michigan) accounted for more COVID deaths than the 10 most populous states. That fact is largely a function of the massive number of deaths in densely populated New York City and New Jersey, but I think density helps explain both why the northeastern states had big death rates — and why their caseloads remained low after the initial, brutal spike. Disease spreads faster in densely inhabited areas, and, likewise, pockets of immunity emerge quicker, too.
» The narrative is bogus that states that reopened early were slavishly following President Trump’s advice and paid for it with surges in infections. There’s pretty much no correlation between when a state reopened and anything except its death rate before reopening. According to the Cato Institute, all 23 states that reopened by May 4 — including both large and small states and states with both Democrat and Republican governors — had unusually low death rates before then. After reopening, about a third of those states saw a significant surge in cases, but 15 didn’t. California, which reopened very late and with all manner of state guidelines and requirements, saw a surge as well.
Almost alone among journalists and columnists, Holman Jenkins Jr. of the Wall Street Journal has reminded his readers regularly of a statement from the CDC on its website that, “In the coming months, most of the U.S. population will be exposed to this virus.” The implication is that all states would have large numbers of infected people — and that the differences will be in the size and timing of the spike and the death rate per capita.
» Gov. Ron DeSantis and Mary Mayhew, secretary of Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration, deserve more credit than they’ve gotten for moves that protected the Floridians most at risk of dying from COVID — the 155,000 residents in Florida’s 4,000 nursing and care facilities. Early as the virus spread, DeSantis and Mayhew established a strict policy of not allowing COVID patients to be moved out of hospitals into nursing homes — unlike New York, which tried to preserve hospital capacity by moving COVID sufferers into nursing facilities and paid the price in a massive death rate. How my colleagues in the media allow Gov. Andrew Cuomo to be quoted as any kind of authority on dealing with COVID — particularly in allowing him to lecture other states on what they should do — is beyond me. A master at virtue signaling, he was an abject failure at policy. See theWall Street Journal’s reporting from early June on “How New York’s Coronavirus Response Made the Pandemic Worse.”
» DeSantis can be criticized, however, for not communicating clearly what he was doing and why. His briefings have been long, rambling and come off as defensive. During the reopening, he could have helped his own cause — and the state’s — by strongly encouraging people to protect themselves and others: He may not have believed in “requiring” masks, but there’s more to leadership than deciding what to require.
» The flatter early curve of the disease in Florida benefited the state when the July surge came — by that point hospitals knew better how to treat the virus. Dr. Eduardo Oliveira, a medical director for AdventHealth, said in July that, “Our mortality rate is below national average. The survival rate is 75%, compared to only around 15% to 20% in New York and other areas early on. Time has allowed us to be better at it.”
» Going forward, the Legislature needs to beef up Florida’s public health infrastructure, which was shredded by cuts under former Gov. Rick Scott. It was dangerous and embarrassing that, due to Scott’s cuts, the state had to scramble to hire epidemiologists and researchers to help track and manage the coronavirus. The nation’s third-largest state doesn’t have to scramble when facing challenges posed by hurricanes, and it shouldn’t have had to scramble when faced with the virus.
» Also going forward, Florida should listen to its business groups. Before the virus hit, the Florida Chamber had begun a program aimed at workplace safety. Incorporating virus-related elements will make it even stronger. Meanwhile, Ed Moore, the recently retired head of ICUF, an association of private colleges and universities, is coordinating an effort called Reset Florida that was initiated by Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Retail Federation, the National Federation of Independent Business and the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association. Ten working groups are developing suggestions for re-energizing Florida’s economy and, longer term, for better coordinating the public and private sectors in a future crisis. The group will present a report to the governor and Legislature late this month.
— Mark Howard, Executive Editor
Read more in Florida Trend's September issue.
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