Florida coronavirus cases set record; positive tests also up

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s confirmed coronavirus cases rose sharply again Tuesday, weeks after the state began reopening its economy, setting a daily record with almost 2,800 new cases reported as the overall count eclipsed 80,000 and the death toll neared 3,000.

The state Department of Health reported 2,783 new confirmed cases Tuesday, breaking the record of 2,581 just set on Friday. Both days are well above the previous high of 1,601 set in mid-May. The state has reported 2,993 deaths, a one-day jump of 55. The daily average for the past week has been about 35, down from 60 in early May.

The outbreak has spread to the team that operates the nation’s hurricane hunter planes, with five employees at the Lakeland base testing positive, forcing others into quarantine, officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Tuesday. Spokesman Jonathan Shannon said the three planes are still flying with minimum crews. There are no tropical storms in the Atlantic or Caribbean and none are likely in the next several days.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said last week said Florida’s upward trend in confirmed cases is mostly a reflection of more testing being conducted combined with spikes in some agriculture communities.

But the number of daily tests conducted peaked three weeks ago and the percentage of positive tests is now over 6%, more than double the rate of 2.3% in late May. The daily rate of hospital admissions is also trending up, with 145 per day statewide over the last week compared to 113 per day the previous week. That remains down from the nearly 200 average admissions per day that were reached in early and mid-May.

The governor’s press office did not return a call Tuesday seeking comment on the increase, and the health department has not responded to multiple phone calls and emails made since Monday.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only Democrat elected statewide, blasted DeSantis on Tuesday, saying in a statement he “has lost control of Florida’s COVID-19 response.”

“His policies are simply not working, and he’s recklessly reopening Florida despite the data screaming for caution,” she said. “Refusing to acknowledge the alarming patterns in cases, hospitalizations, and positivity is not only arrogant, but will cost lives, public health, and our economy.”

The number of daily tests reported in Florida peaked on Memorial Day at just over 33,000, with positive tests averaging about 750 per day the previous week. That was three weeks after the state began reopening from the near-economic shutdown caused by the coronavirus outbreak, which began in March.

After a period of decline, the numbers again began spiking June 3, with more than 1,000 cases reported on 13 of the last 14 days. The number of tests given daily has been in the 27,000 range. On average over the past week, more than 1,700 new cases have been reported daily.

In Jacksonville, where President Donald Trump will make his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination in August, the daily number of positive cases has increased 65% over the last week, jumping from 23 new cases on average per day to 38. The president’s speech was moved from North Carolina, where the governor wouldn’t promise a full-blown convention free of social distancing measures.

DeSantis has been more accommodating, but has said restrictions could be placed on Trump’s speech if circumstances warrant.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry told reporters Tuesday the city’s increase was to be expected, as “people are out moving around, getting back to work.” He said the city’s number of hospitalizations is down and called any suggestion that Jacksonville resume quarantining “ridiculous.”

Hundreds of miles (kilometers) away in hard-hit South Florida, the state’s most densely populated region, the number of cases is also trending up after flattening last month, said Dr. Mary Jo Trepka, chair of Florida International University’s department of epidemiology. Her team’s research has focused on heavily populated Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties along with the Florida Keys.

She said the number of people carrying the virus is certainly higher than the tests show because many with the disease don’t see a doctor because their symptoms are mild or non-existent. They can still be spreading the virus, so they need to wear masks in crowded spaces and practice social distancing, she said.

“If people aren’t going to do that, if they aren’t going to take the precautions, then we will continue to see more cases,” she said. If that happens, she said, “policymakers will have to make those really hard decisions of restricting movement again and potentially a lockdown again. Nobody wants to go there.”