This week has opened to some unexpected good news in Florida. Tropical Storm Isaias, which looked like a hurricane aimed at Palm Beach County, turned out to be a big nothing. And the Florida Department of Health issued three successive days of hopeful reports about the coronavirus outbreak.
On Sunday, the number of new reported diagnoses across the state dipped to a one-month low (7,104). On Monday, that stat fell dramatically, to 4,752 — the lowest since June 23. On Tuesday, DOH reported 5,446 positive test results: the 10th straight day with fewer than 10,000 new cases.
So ... hooray?
Let’s hold the cheering for now. First, it was not immediately clear if the reported numbers were lower merely because some testing sites had shut amid preparations for the expected hurricane. Second, you can never discern a trend from a one- or two-day event.
But it is undeniable that, according to state figures, Florida is seeing a slower spread of the virus than it was a couple of weeks ago. On July 19, the state posted a seven-day total of over 78,000 cases. That turned out to be a peak. On July 26, the state counted 72,500 new cases for the week. This past week, the number was down to 59,600.
At the same time, though, the death count in Florida has leaped, from a weekly death count of 819 reported on July 19, to a staggering 1,200 last week.
On Tuesday, the state reported 247 more deaths since Monday, pushing the grim total of people lost past 7,500.
With this virus, the death count always lags behind the infection count. It takes some days for the disease to claim its victims. And it takes days after that for a fatality to make its way into the statistics. So, it is possible that the state’s death toll, too, is at or near a peak and will soon decline.
Perhaps the coronavirus’ wild ride through Florida, which began its roar in early June, looks to be slowing down. But keep in mind what that spree has done. A tremendous amount of virus is now spread around America’s third-most populous state. Many people carrying it don’t even know it.
This means that, in Florida as in New York, no one can let their guard down.
Remember, too, the nation is now in a new phase with the coronavirus, different from March and April when much of the country was shut down. As Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, said Sunday on CNN, the virus “is extraordinarily widespread.”
“It’s into the rural as equal urban areas,” Birx said, earning her an unwarranted but regrettably predictable Twitter rebuke from President Donald Trump, who called her “pathetic” for speaking the simple truth and not parroting his disinformation that he has done a “very good job.” Never mind that the U.S. figures of more than 156,000 dead and 4.7 million infected are the highest in the world.
While Florida as a whole is seeing a decline in new infections, rural counties from Marion on north through the Panhandle are now hot spots for coronavirus increases. Never has Gov. Ron DeSantis’ objection to a statewide mask-wearing order looked so short-sighted and dangerously wrong-headed.
DeSantis has repeatedly held that rural counties are so different from urban centers like Miami that a “one-size-fits-all” policy would badly suit Florida. He has also contended that Floridians are smart enough to figure out the wisdom of mask-wearing for themselves. Both proposition have been proven wrong.
We must wait for public health officials to tell us for sure, but it stands to reason that the turnabout in new Florida infections owes a lot to the mask-wearing mandates set down by governments like Palm Beach County and businesses like Publix, Walmart and Lowe’s.
The United States would be smart to learn a hard lesson from Israel, which opened all its schools in late May and within days had a major outbreak on its hands, the first of many. Hundreds of schools are again closed, tens of thousands of teachers and students quarantined.
“If there is a low number of cases, there is an illusion that the disease is over,” said Dr. Hagai Levine, epidemiologist chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians, according to the New York Times. “But it’s a complete illusion.”
We shouldn’t be fooled by that illusion. Florida’s case numbers are currently receding, but the disease is far from over. It’s not safe to hold big block parties, or cram pleasure boats full of people, or crowd together for a late-night rave.
Until the still-distant day when most of us have been vaccinated against this virus, there can be no letting up.
Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Keep your distance.
This editorial was first published Aug. 5 in The Palm Beach Post.
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