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Coping with COVID-19, an executive backpedal, Florida’s spiraling trajectory, and more questions

It’s Monday, March 30, and it’s been 24 days since the state activated it’s emergency operations center to battle the coronavirus crisis. When last week began, there were 763 positive COVID-19 cases in Florida and 12 deaths. When the week ended, there were 4,950 cases and 60 deaths., with Sunday being the largest single-day increase yet — 912 cases. The curve is skyrocketing, not flattening.

HERE’S WHAT WE KNOW

Death toll will stun: Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday the U.S. will have “millions of cases” and could have more than 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 — but only if restrictions stay in place until the end of May.

Trump backs down: Faced with those jarring estimates, President Trump backed off his previous comments that the country could go back to work by Easter, saying in a Rose Garden announcement Sunday, that his plan to ease off the “social distancing” restrictions had been simply “aspirational.” The statement was a vivid reminder that another victim of the deadly scourge was the politically-inspired wishful thinking of this election year.

Medical experts clamor for a shut down: “It is past time to intervene to slow transmission [in Florida],” said Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, during a conference call in which he advocated for greater restrictions on the movements of all Floridians. That same day, dozens of emergency room doctors signed an open letter calling on people to stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. But, as an increasing number of counties heeded their call, Gov. Ron DeSantis vigorously defended his decision not to order people to stay home.

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Not enough testing: Despite widely recognized community spread of the novel coronavirus in South Florida, tests continue to come back positive at a higher-than-average rate in Miami-Dade County, a reflection of testing that remains narrowly focused on those who are sickest, oldest or most likely to have been exposed, such as first responders or those who traveled to places with widespread transmission.

The virus isn’t partisan: Two poll workers who spent Florida’s primary day at precincts in the city of Hollywood have tested positive for coronavirus, the Broward County Supervisor of Elections said Thursday.

Millions have no work: Close to 100,000 Floridians filed unemployment claims — in a deluge that has overwhelmed the state’s system.

It’s going to get worse: Three academic models created with input by epidemiologists and health experts from Stanford, Harvard and Northeastern universities predict anywhere from 450,000 to 700,000 people in Florida are likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 in the coming months, with the number of hospitalizations depending on preventive actions like social distancing. Those estimates drop dramatically if the state imposes more strict social distancing orders.

HERE’S WHAT WE DON’T KNOW

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Will DeSantis follow Trump? That is the question we were left with after the president’s Rose Garden pivot.

DeSantis has so far tried to halt the spread of the virus by choosing executive orders that have taken cues from the state’s largest business organizations. The governor has closed bars, banned restaurants from offering in-person dining but allowed most other businesses to keep operating.

His lengthy list of both temporary and voluntary measures includes temporarily closing down assisted living facilities and nursing homes to visitors, blocking non-emergency medical procedures and limiting crowds at beaches.

No lock-down: Despite calls from local and state officials to impose a statewide shut-down, however, DeSantis proclaimed: “You simply cannot lock down our society with no end in sight,’’ at a teleconference from the governor’s office with only television reporters in attendance.

There is no playbook for how a governor handles a global pandemic that has the potential to affect more elders in your state than any state in the nation, but Florida’s governor is taking his signals from the White House, eschewing the approach governors of dozens of other states have taken. He advocates a patchwork approach, aimed at shielding businesses in parts of the state where fewer tests have been done and fewer cases have emerged. He called this: “threading the needle.”

Perhaps we will hear more today. The governor has scheduled two media events in South Florida. Will he embrace stronger restrictions to halt the state’s spiraling positive case numbers?

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HERE’S WHAT THE STATE’S NOT TELLING US

How safe are elders? The death toll rose to six at a Fort Lauderdale elder care center that has become a hotspot for coronavirus infection among sometimes frail elders who are especially vulnerable. But while family members of the residents of that assisted living facility have been notified that 16 residents had tested positive, there remain dozens of other facilities across the state where residents are testing positive but the state is not informing the public. Among the outstanding questions: Are all residents and staff tested when some in the facility tests positive? If not, why?

So many questions: Here are just some of the questions we have asked the governor’s office, and have yet to have answered: What impact does the shortage of personal protection equipment have on the ability to conduct tests? When does the state expect its cases to peak statewide?

As the state attempts to acquire ventilators in anticipation of a surge in demand as people get sicker, what is the state’s plan for ventilator allocation? Health care workers are especially at risk; what are you doing to assist them?

The governor has been critical of the reckless behavior of people who traveled from New York and New Orleans coming to Florida and spreading the coronavirus, but what does he say to the mounting criticism from Democrats, local officials and public health experts that he is fostering reckless behavior by not imposing stricter restrictions across the state?

Is social distancing a license to exclude? Instead of allowing the Miami Herald to ask those questions, the governor’s office has locked us out. For the previous two weeks, Mary Ellen Klas, the Miami Herald’s bureau chief for the Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee Bureau, had been asking the governor’s office to practice social distancing for news conferences or provide either a pool reporter rotation or conduct virtual briefings through an interactive livestream. The governor’s office refused.

As Klas and her colleagues attempted to work remotely, sending questions to the governor’s staff, they increasingly found their questions went unanswered or were being ignored. When Klas decided to end her attempts to work remotely and attend the governor’s briefing in person on Saturday, she was refused entrance. Why? The governor’s spokesperson Meredith Beatrice responded: “You specifically requested social distancing and we are being respectful of your request.”

By contrast, six reporters from other news organizations were hand selected to attend the briefing and given more than an hour of advance notice. The public was told about the event 15 minutes before it began.

THE AGE OF ADAPTATION

New era for voter outreach: “This is going to change the industry of non-profit advocacy forever.” That was the assessment of Frederick Vélez III, national director of civic engagement for the Hispanic Federation, as he and his colleagues consider how voter registration and voter advocacy organization adapt in the coronavirus era.

Medicaid expansion courtesy of COVID-19: The massive coronavirus relief bill signed into law last week will allow Florida to do what lawmakers in the state have resisted for a decade: draw down millions in federal funds for Medicaid to pay for public health insurance program for low-income people. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act equates to about $1.2 billion in new money for Florida.

There is good news! South Floridians, accustomed to natural disasters like hurricanes, are using all their recovery skills to help people faced with hardship because of the virus. They’re creating funds, making meals, hiring laid-off employees, and providing much-needed financial support to people who’ve lost jobs. Read about this inspiration and relief efforts here.

No paywall: The Miami Herald and McClatchy news sites have lifted the paywall for all stories related to the coronavirus. To support vital reporting such as this, please consider a subscription for unlimited digital access.

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