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Gov. DeSantis briefing on coronavirus (March 24) Tallahassee Democrat

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Against the urging of state and local leaders and national health professionals, Gov. Ron DeSantis has refused to order a statewide shutdown of all nonessential businesses and mandate that all residents stay at home to help prevent a wider spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

Meantime, the number of Florida cases continues to rise. As of 6 p.m. Tuesday, the number of positive cases rose to 1,467, with 1,379 of those Florida residents and 88 non-residents. There are now 20 Florida deaths listed.

“You have some people who say this virus is much ado about nothing. I was never in that camp and said it was a serious public health threat,” DeSantis said Tuesday afternoon during a televised news conference from the Governor’s Office that was restricted to television reporters.


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"But others say I should lock everything down," he said. "Neither is right."

DeSantis reiterated the actions that he's taken since the first positive case was discovered and made known March 2, including shutting down bars and nightclubs statewide, restricting restaurants to takeout service only, and stopping nursing home visits.

He also recounted the executive orders he's made to limit public gatherings at beaches to no more than 10, and Tuesday announced it would be expanded to include all public gatherings. "You should not be having 50 people over for a party," he said, mentioning the massive block parties he's seen in California, which is supposed to be on lockdown.

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Any kind of social or recreational group will have to keep to 10 or fewer, or violate the directive, he said.

He also expanded Monday's order that all people flying into Florida from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut quarantine themselves for 14 days or face misdemeanor penalties. In addition, he now says anyone who's in Florida from New York needs to self-isolate for 14 days and report all the people they've been in contact with while here.

He's also asked Health Secretary and state Surgeon General Scott Rivkees to encourage all people 65 and older and anyone with serious medical conditions to stay at home and minimize exposure to others.

On the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 11 states have enacted some sort of stay-at-home or shelter in place order, along with directives on closing non-essential businesses. Those states include New York, California and Ohio. 

"If we don’t apply control measures, the number of cases will keep going up exponentially beyond the already fearsome numbers we have seen," said Marc Lipsitch, head of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health's Center for Communicable Diseases Dynamics.

"Without control, case numbers will double, then quadruple, then be eight times as big, and so on, doubling with each 'generation' of cases," he wrote in a recent blog.

A joint effort by ProPublica and the Harvard Global Health Institute shows that by enforcing self-isolation and social distancing, communities can more quickly stop the spread of coronavirus, thus flattening the curve and preventing a wave of COVID-19 cases swamping hospitals and causing supply shortages.

“Vast communities in America are not prepared to take care of the COVID-19 patients showing up,” Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, who led a team of researchers that developed the analysis, told ProPublica. Even in a best case scenario, if infection is spread out over 18 months, he said, 95% of all hospital beds across the U.S. will be full. 

In a moderate scenario, where 40 percent of the country is infected, a fifth will require hospitalization, with a fifth of those becoming critically ill enough to require intensive care treatment, the Harvard researchers said. In that case, Tallahassee would require 1,850 additional beds — about 3 times the available beds based on 2018 data, the Harvard report said.

A Stanford University-based group, COVID ACT NOW, has a model that projects the consequences of not practicing social distancing. 

With limited action, Florida's hospitals would reach an overload of over 465,000 patients by April 24, the model shows. With three months of social distancing, Florida would still see 185,000 hospitalizations by May 14. With mandatory sheltering in place, the need is reduced to 18,000 hospitalizations by July.

"Some people think the governor should be a dictator and order everyone to stay at home," DeSantis said. Because Florida is home to 21 million people, the virus is hitting different communities differently. A more tailored approach is warranted, he said, rather than a "blunt instrument" like a statewide shutdown.

Shortages of N95 masks, protective gear, beds and ventilators are already an issue and many states including Florida are scrambling to restock dwindling supplies. Most of the resources on order are going to Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Echoing similar comments made by President Donald Trump, DeSantis said he wants to work with people in Washington and other communities in Florida to see what this looks like beyond the "15 Days to Stop The Spread" effort.

"How can we do this fight in a way where people are not going to be locked inside their homes with no end in sight?" he asked.

On the same day the number of U.S. cases jumped to more than 50,000, Trump told Fox and Friends Tuesday he wants the "country opened up and just raring to go by Easter."

Easter is two weeks away.

DeSantis has worked with emergency management and health officials to increase testing throughout the state, and has focused on getting the supplies in place to deal with a surge in hospital patients, should it come to that. 

But he's been reluctant to take statewide measures to shut down all nonessential business because of the chain reaction such a drastic measure would have on the state’s already reeling tourist-based economy.

"When you order people to shelter in place, you are consigning hundreds of thousands of people to lose their jobs," he said. "Nobody's talking about them."

He also said he's very concerned about the rise of suicide, mental illness, domestic violence and child abuse if even this partial shutdown is allowed to go on.

Although DeSantis has helped implement widespread closures of public beaches and shut down nonessential businesses in South Florida, where 50% of all the state's cases are being reported, he's reluctant to do the same in more rural areas. 

"This is not a virus that is impacting every corner of the state," DeSantis said, noting that 20 counties have zero cases and others have "two, five and seven."

"South Florida is different than Northwest Florida," he said. "The chance of transmission there is a much different calculation than if you are in Miami or Broward, so I think it would be inadvisable to consign that person to real hardship if we honestly don't believe it would advance the public health."

But many counties that had two, five or seven cases a week or 10 days ago have seen an marked growth in cases. Duval County, which had seven cases 10 days ago, has 50 cases as of Tuesday, and three deaths.

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DeSantis said that the rate of positive cases is slowing down, but an analysis of the reports sent out by the Division of Emergency Management shows the rate of positive tests to total tests has remained steady at 9-9.5%, with a one-time spike of 13.3% on the March 19 afternoon report.

The rate of positive cases to total tested Tuesday morning was 9.7 percent.

DeSantis is also relying on hospital emergency department data collected in real time by the Department of Health, but that information only goes to March 18.

The data shows the number of people visiting ERs with coughs and shortness of breath is going up, especially for those 19-54 and 55 and up. But the rate of those with fevers is back to expected levels. The rate of Broward County visitors was up for fever, coughing and shortness of breath.

Contact Schweers at jschweers@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jeffschweers

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