FL’s grim milestone — at least 1 million COVID-19 infections; critics blast DeSantis for ‘hands-off’ approach to pandemic

Novel coronavirus SARS CoV2, which causes COVID-19. Meanwhile, new COVID mutations called variants are now spreading across the U.S. Microphotography by National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

For the first time, Florida has reached at least 1 million COVID-19 infections, a grim milestone that rose over nine months’ time, beginning with two coronavirus cases announced Sunday, March 1, to 1,008,166 on Tuesday, Dec. 1.

Over that period, the global pandemic sparked economic hardships, from lockdowns, school closures, and job losses, to Florida’s unemployment benefits nightmare, businesses losses, state revenue losses, and even entire industries struggling to survive.

The state now joins only two other states in the nation — Texas and California —with at least 1 million infections, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Both Texas and California have already surpassed the 1 million milestone.

The Florida Department of Health reported a total of 999,319 infections on Monday, Nov. 30, and on Tuesday, the figure jumped to more than 1 million for the first time.

“Reaching the 1 million threshold is an alarming place to be. But even before the pandemic, millions of Floridians were uninsured and struggling to put food on the table,” Sadaf Knight, CEO of the Florida Policy Institute, said in an email to the Florida Phoenix.

“COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated longstanding barriers to economic mobility and affordable health care in our state.”

Scott Darius, executive director of Florida Voices for Health, said in an email to the Florida Phoenix:

“This shows the impacts of the pandemic aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Florida still has likely over a million people uninsured and a projected budget shortfall that needs to be addressed. Medicaid expansion (allowing more people to access health care) can be part of the solution for both.”

March 1 marked the first day that state officials made public COVID cases – only two cases had been reported at the time. Those cases were in Hillsborough and Manatee counties, at a time when there was little known about the virus.

On Aug. 5, the state had reached a grim milestone in COVID-19 infections, surpassing 500,000 COVID-19 cases, with state data showing a total of 502,739 cases.

And then in mid-November, Florida had reached the 900,000 mark for COVID-19 infections, with the Florida Department of Health reporting a total of 905,248 infections on Nov. 18.

However, an ousted Florida data scientist had released data on COVID-19 cases that differed from the state’s COVID figures, showing that Florida has already reached 1 million cases.

Rebekah Jones, the former state data scientist who claims she was fired for refusing to manipulate data, launched a dashboard to track COVID-19 and reported nearly 1.1 million total COVID-19 cases as of Sunday. Jones now includes data on cases in K-12 schools.

In Florida, the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic has always been in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties – the areas with the most infections. Miami-Dade already has more than 230,000 COVID-19 infections, higher than every county in the state. (Florida has 67 counties.)

Meanwhile, Gov. Ron DeSantis had been quiet even as COVID-19 cases began to surge, holding his first press conference since Election Day in Kissimmee on Monday to announce that public schools will remain open for in-person learning for the rest of the school year.

As previously reported by the Florida Phoenix, DeSantis appeared via video feeds on a number of occasions since the election, including on Nov. 19 when he detailed early plans to distribute COVID vaccines.

Democratic state lawmakers weighed in on the state’s response to the public health crisis, asserting failure by the DeSantis administration to curb the spread of COVID and mandate safety precautions.

State Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Democrat representing part of Miami-Dade County, told the Phoenix that the Republican governor has been “hands-off” for most of the pandemic and criticized him for the state’s poor response.

“As we approach 1 million reported COVID cases, we continue to have a complete lack of leadership in Florida,” Taddeo said.

“We saw this in reporting transparency, in wearing masks, and in bringing down these incredibly high numbers, even going as far as just extending the ban on local communities to impose a mask mandate.”

State Sen. Lori Berman, a Democrat from Palm Beach County, said in a phone conversation that DeSantis “has taken counterproductive measures” in response to the pandemic.

“I am deeply troubled that we are in another surge and our governor has done absolutely nothing to control the surge,” she said.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat, said in an email to the Phoenix:

“The lack of response to COVID-19 from the Florida Legislature is deafening. With no special session in site, we have done nothing as a branch of government in the last nine months to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and support small businesses and Florida’s unemployed with improved benefits or new jobs.

And now with nearly 1 million positive cases and 18,500 resident deaths, Floridians continue to struggle as corporations influence the pandemic response to meet their bottom line. We’ll continue to lead with science when it comes to responding to COVID19 and we’ll keep prioritizing the health and well-being of everyday people above all else.”

Communications Director Fred Piccolo defended DeSantis against criticism based on his leadership in the state’s COVID-19 response, saying in a Monday tweet “If you are critical of @GovRonDeSantis [DeSantis’ Twitter account], I expect to see critical analysis of MI, NM, NJ, etc.”

In a New York Times analysis on COVID-19, Florida ranks 3rd in the number of infections, but the infection rate — infections per 100,000 people —  shows Florida ranks 23 of the 50 states.

Knight. of Florida Policy Institute argued that state officials should implement better policies and take certain steps “to put the Sunshine State on a better path,” such as expanding health programs such as Medicaid, generally for those with limited income.

Florida lawmakers have failed to expand the Medicaid program that provides health services for the most vulnerable population.

“Following the lead of 38 other states and D.C. to expand Medicaid to all adults with low income would help Floridians access critical, life-saving medication and affordable, comprehensive health care services,” Knight said in an email.

“Right now, our state has one of the lowest Medicaid income thresholds in the nation. On the federal level, Congress needs to approve additional, flexible COVID-19 aid.”