Note: This story has been updated to include comments from the governor’s news conference today.
Florida gained a whopping 5,508 new COVID-19 infections in the latest report from the state Department of Health, bringing the total caseload to 109,014 amid Gov. Ron DeSantis’ program of reopening the state’s economy.
The data, gathered on Tuesday, represent the biggest spike in new infections to date.
COVID deaths among Florida residents also spiked, to 44. Seven had been recorded the day before, compared to 24 on Monday and 22 on Sunday. Total deaths to date are 3,281, but the overall trend since late May has been downward.
The data on positive coronavirus test results has been trending upward since early June.
DeSantis announced Florida’s first two COVID cases on March 1.
The governor has shown no sign of easing off his reopening program, which began on May 1 with nonessential businesses including restaurants and museums and libraries opening their doors to heavily restricted numbers of customers.
As of early June, restaurants and bars could operate at half capacity, contingent on social distancing and hygiene rules. Movie theaters and other entertainment venues, and personal services businesses including tattoo parlors, got the nod at the same time.
DeSantis long insisted the increasing caseload was a result of increased testing, but now has conceded that community spread is the blame, especially among younger Floridians who tend not to suffer as severely as older people, particularly those with serious underlying medical conditions.
During a news conference Wednesday, the governor urged people in that cohort to beware the risk of passing the virus to more vulnerable populations. The state plans to run public service announcements spreading that message.
He also noted that about 20 percent of hospital patients who test positive are not there because of COVID-related symptoms but for other reasons. Hospitals now test all patients for the coronavirus.
State beverage agents have begun to crack down on bars flouting social distancing rules. Meanwhile, thousands of people have been in the streets protesting police brutality.
The average age for people testing positive Tuesday was 23. That has ranged through the 20-to-30 age group throughout June. DeSantis has endorsed their right to protest with this caveat:
“But understand, from a virus perspective, gathering with 5,000 people to protest something that’s important to you is no different from gathering with 5,000 people to do something else that may not be considered as significant.”
He has resisted calls for a statewide mask mandate to contain the infections, although he’s allowing local governments to require their use.
“Does the data show in, like, a rural county that that’s better to do? No,” the governor said Wednesday.
“The transmission is being driven in metro areas. I mean, you see that very clearly in Dade. You see that in Orange County. You see that in some of these other places. So, they’re doing that and, obviously, they’re going to have to worry about how you enforce that; you have police interactions. There’s some sheriffs that said that they would not be willing to do that.”
“If you follow the guidelines … everything works out fine.”
Nearly 16 percent of the test results gathered Tuesday were positive. Some 19.26 percent of ICU beds were available statewide, by the Department of Health’s count.
Medical executives who appeared with DeSantis during a news conference in Orlando Tuesday agreed that community spread is behind the increased caseload but also endorsed reopening.
“It is completely compatible to have business reopenings and maintain a safe community. We’ve just got to be really thoughtful about the way we interact in the rest of the times we’re around each other,” said Dr. George Ralls, quality director for the Orlando Health Orlando Regional Medical Center.
Yet DeSantis’ approach certainly has its critics, including Gwen Graham, a Democratic former congresswoman from North Florida who unsuccessfully sought her party’s nomination for governor in 2018.
She chimed in on a Twitter thread questioning the state’s COVID data.
“I don’t believe a damn word @GovRonDeSantis or anyone in his administration says. They have continually manipulated the data to undercount the number of #COVID cases & deaths & are now manipulating the data on available ICU beds. Florida, our governor has sold us out to Trump,” Graham wrote.
“Another record day,” Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried, Florida’s only Democrat elected statewide, said on her feed. “@GovRonDeSantis, we should not move ahead with further reopening without taking more action now to slow the spread of #COVID19.”