Gov. DeSantis argues COVID picture in Florida isn’t as bleak as it seems

Gov. Ron DeSantis at a news conference in Fort Lauderdale in April, surrounded by people wearing masks. Credit: Florida Channel screenshot.

Gov. Ron DeSantis urged Floridians not to be alarmed at the persistent spikes in positive tests for COVID-19, and suggested they’re not as bad as they seem given the true extent of the disease’s spread among non-symptomatic people including young adults.

As of 11 a.m. Monday, the Florida Department of Health had reported an additional 6,336 positive coronavirus test results and 47 deaths, for a total of 206,447 positive tests and 3,778 deaths. The positivity rate was around 15 percent.

However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that actual infections may run 11 times greater than the number of recorded infections, based on testing for coronavirus antibodies in four South Florida counties between April 6 and April 10 — when the area had reported 10,500 diagnosed cases, the governor said.

A University of Miami study, meanwhile, found an infection rate 16 times higher than the reported diagnoses, he added.

“That means a couple of things. It means the virus is more widespread than what the cases would say. It also means that the fatalities are less than a simple raw case fatality rate, because you’d have to include all of the infections doing a seroprevalence [survey],” DeSantis said during a news conference at the U.F. Health hospital in The Villages, a retirement community in north Central Florida.

The CDC now estimates the national fatality rate at 0.26 percent. The same metric would bump Florida’s fatality rate (about 1.9 percent by the usual measure) to about 0.19, he said.

“People should just put it into context about what’s going on,” he added. “There’s no need to really be fearful about it.”

DeSantis added that he’d like to see Florida undertake a statewide seropositivity survey to gain a truer picture of what’s going on.

“There are and have been way more infections than documented cases,” he said. “And so, if you see 5,000 cases, 10,000, just understand that is not the sum total of the people that have been infected. If we were doing 80,000 tests a day in March or April, those numbers would have been dramatically higher in terms of case numbers than what we ended up having.”

DeSantis, like President Donald Trump, had suggested the caseload increase was the result of more testing but more recently the governor has acknowledged that that’s not the sole explanation. He also cited increased social interactions among young people.

The positivity rate ran below 5 percent from the beginning of May through June 13, DeSantis said. Last week, the rate was just below 15 percent among 400,000 tests.

But positivity rates vary geographically, he said — 20 percent in Miami-Dade County, 15 to 20 percent in Hillsborough, 15 percent in Orange, but perhaps 7 percent in other counties.

“You have seen an increase in the positivity, but there are a lot of parts of Florida that are still in the single digits and we want to keep it that way.”

DeSantis has been arguing that Florida’s hospitals have capacity to handle more cases. However, the Miami Herald reported that hospitals in the St. Petersburg areas were running low in ICU beds and that one Miami hospital had only four such beds open.

DeSantis again noted that nursing home residents comprise more than half of Florida’s COVID fatalities. He also pointed to large gatherings that happened in May and June (as he was reopening the economy) and attributed the recent surge in infections across the Sun Belt to — air conditioning.

“People tend to want to retreat inside to the air conditioning. That’s understandable. But if you have groups of people in the air conditioning, that is going to be better for the virus than if you were outside in the sunshine,” DeSantis said.

He also argued that the median age of people taking the novel coronavirus test has been trending down as testing has become more widespread, hovering in the 30s.

“This is a virus that does not affect all groups equally. It’s much more lethal for people who are in their 80s or 90s than it is in your 20s or 30s,” DeSantis said. “Basically, if you’re under 40 and you don’t have significant co-morbidities, the fatality rate for this is pretty close to zero.”

But not exactly zero. An American Council on Science and Health study shows that COVID deaths tend to cluster in older age groups but that the disease had killed people as young as infants.

Later, he added:

“This was probably circulating among that [young adult] age group in March or April — we just weren’t testing for it. But I do think it’s circulating at a higher rate now, or certainly has in the past few weeks, than it would have been detected even if we were testing a little bit more aggressively.”

In other remarks, the governor said he saw no need to hold off on opening Florida theme parks. The Universal Studios parks opened in early June and Disney’s parks are scheduled to reopen next week, both subject to social distancing and sanitization requirements.

“We have to have society function. You can have society function in a way that keeps people safe,” he said.

“Where you start to see the spread is just in social situations where people let their guard down, usually at like a private party or something like that. That’s kind of what we’ve seen.”

Although he has refused to issue a statewide order to wear masks against transmission, DeSantis reiterated that especially older people should observe social distancing and that young people should worry about infecting their elders.

“There’s no need to be fearful. Just focus on the facts. We understand what we’ve got to do as a state, and let’s get it done. I think if we do that, you know, we’re going to be in good shape.”