DeSantis touts ‘rights and liberties’ and ditching COVID restrictions; health experts say that’s dangerous

A man hospitalized with COVID-19 is given medicine. Credit: Getty Images

Amid thousands of new COVID-19 cases reported daily, with more than 2.2 million residents overall testing positive, and a surge of COVID-mutation cases causing more deaths, Gov. Ron DeSantis is using his sweeping authority to get rid of pandemic restrictions in communities across Florida.

That means that as of July 1, face masks would no longer be necessary and rigid restrictions on social recreational gatherings would be gone, among other measures.

State employees also could go back to work in their government offices, according to DeSantis’ May 3 executive order — a way of protecting Floridians’ “rights and liberties,” according to the governor’s view.

But for doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, and many Florida residents at large, it’s a scary proposition. For those people, the pandemic is not over, and health experts continue to advocate for maintaining safety measures to prevent further outbreaks.

Marissa Lee, a registered nurse at Osceola Regional Medical Center in Kissimmee, is concerned about “high levels of transmission, cases, hospitalizations, and more deaths in Florida,” she told the Florida Phoenix.

“Suspending all restrictions is dangerous, especially when COVID variants that are more transmissible have been tied to higher mortality rates, and may be resistant to vaccines, are circulating,” she said, adding that it’s important to protect health care workers and other essential workers.

And despite vaccines, it is too early to let up on safety protocols such as “wearing masks and practicing social distancing,” said Lee, who is a member of the National Nurses United representing registered nurses nationwide.

DeSantis and other Republicans in Florida have pointed to a steadfast vaccination rollout plan, touting 9.2 million residents vaccinated as of May 8, according to Florida’s health department. (Those figures include 6.9 million residents fully vaccinated and 2.3 million who have gotten a first vaccine dose.)

But a nationwide analysis based on states where people have been fully vaccinated shows Florida at 32 percent, below the national average of 34 percent, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means millions more Floridians likely would need to be vaccinated to ward off the COVID pandemic.

DeSantis made it clear in his executive order that “Florida now maintains a sufficient supply of COVID-19 vaccines for every eligible Floridian who desires a vaccine to be vaccinated.”

But despite the vaccine efforts, COVID-19 is still infecting and killing Floridians.

As of May 8, Florida posted 2,224,148 COVID infections of residents, 35,700 resident deaths, and 92,023 hospitalizations, according to the state health department data.

To provide context, Florida has the third highest number of COVID infections in the nation, but ranks 21st of the 50 states in the rate of infections per 100,000 people, according to a New York Times analysis.

As for deaths, Florida has the fourth highest number of COVID deaths but ranks 27th of the 50 states for death rates, the Times reported.

Meanwhile, so-called COVID-19 variant cases — mutated strains that have spread across the country — have been surging in Florida. In fact, Florida has the largest number of variant cases in the country, according to the CDC.

The Florida Phoenix has been tracking the variant cases through use of public records requests by the Florida Department of Health.

The department provided updates on the data last week, showing 10,333 variant cases as of May 2. Those variants emerged from United Kingdom, South Africa, Brazil, California, and other areas where variants are considered of concern.

There have been 62 deaths from the more contagious COVID-19 variants, up from 31 variant-related deaths reported from the health department between April early to mid April.

“It really does pay to be careful because it’s easier to transmit, and it doesn’t take much for you to get infected,” Dr. Michael Teng, associate professor of medicine at the University of South Florida, said in a telephone interview.

Those resident variant deaths were in 15 counties, with the highest numbers in Broward (13) and Miami-Dade (12). The other deaths were in Hillsborough, Pasco, Orange, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Polk, Citrus, Collier, DeSoto, Escambia, Leon, Manatee, and Monroe.

Deaths from variant cases in the state ranged from age 27 to 102. Of the 62 deaths, the largest age group by decades was in their 60s — 22 residents.

For example, a death case in DeSoto County in southwest Florida was a 61-year-old white man who died from the United Kingdom variant, known as B.1.1.7, after being hospitalized.

In other age groups, 14 residents died from the variant cases in their 80s, and 11 in their 90s. Others were generally in lower age groups.

The vast majority of variant cases in Florida are from the United Kingdom strain, with 9,050 cases.

Other variant cases include P.1, the Brazil strain, with 464 infections. And 446 cases of the California strain, known as B.1.429, and 319 cases of the second California strain, known as B.1.427. In addition, Florida has detected 52 cases of the South Africa variant, known as B.1.351. (Two other cases were not clear in the data.)

Most infections from COVID variants are from young residents ages 25 to 34, with 1,990; 1,812 infections from people ages 35 to 44 and 1,730 between 15 and 24.

Federal health officials have warned that COVID variants pose a greater risk of severe illness, may overwhelm hospital systems, cause an increase in deaths, and potentially reduce vaccine effectiveness.

Dr. Teng thinks that people in Florida have become what he called “COVID fatigued” but continues to inform the public about the risks associated with certain activities.

“It’s about reducing the risk,” Teng said. “Indoors with a lot of people, especially things like indoor dining, where people have to take their masks off, that’s higher risk.”

According to the CDC, variants of concern “might require one or more appropriate public health actions,” including “local or regional efforts to control spread” and modifying vaccines or treatments to respond to the more infectious mutations.

At the same time, DeSantis is moving to remove various restrictions in local communities.

Overall, females outnumber males in the state in terms of variant cases, with 5,494 and 4,796, respectively. And Miami-Dade County has the highest number of variant cases in Florida, with 2,279 cases.

“My thing is giving people information and letting them make their own risk assessments. I can tell them what the safest thing is to do but people are kind of tired of doing the safest thing,” Teng said.

Here is a list of counties that have variant cases of all key types. Overall, 63 counties currently have the variants. Four do not: Glades, Jackson, Lafayette and Washington counties. The data also includes three cases considered “unknown.” The data was provided by the Florida Department of Health.

County # variant cases
Dade 2279
Broward 1950
Hillsborough 927
Palm Beach 685
Pinellas 594
Orange 497
Pasco 324
Polk 292
St. Lucie 199
Osceola 196
Seminole 188
Lee 182
Hernando 163
Manatee 156
Duval 154
Collier 138
Lake 130
Volusia 128
Marion 100
Sarasota 90
Brevard 84
Alachua 82
Charlotte 62
Clay 57
Martin 55
Desoto 51
Indian River 50
Citrus 47
St. Johns 41
Flagler 40
Sumter 40
Escambia 35
Leon 30
Monroe 29
Santa Rosa 28
Hardee 24
Highlands 24
Okaloosa 24
Hendry 19
Putnam 18
Okeechobee 16
Levy 13
Bay 12
Columbia 11
Suwannee 8
Taylor 8
Nassau 7
Walton 7
Dixie 4
Gadsden 4
Calhoun 3
Franklin 3
Madison 3
Union 3
Wakulla 3
Bradford 2
Gilchrist 2
Gulf 2
Holmes 2
Jefferson 2
Baker 1
Hamilton 1
Liberty 1
Unknown 3