Study: Florida problems with social interactions rose before virus spike

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Floridians dramatically cut their social interactions in March when the coronavirus pandemic hit the state, but by June their contacts returned to close to normal, just before cases and deaths began spiking, a university study whose preliminary results were released Wednesday shows.

The study came as Florida recorded more than 100 new coronavirus deaths for the seventh time in two weeks, giving it the nation’s highest daily average for fatalities for the past week.

The University of West Florida study using cellphone locations showed Floridians cut their social interactions by two-thirds between early March when the state’s first coronavirus cases were reported and March 21, the day after the state ordered a ban on indoor dining at restaurants but before a broader statewide economic lockdown was enacted.

The study, which has not yet been peer reviewed, tracked cellphone locations for adults who agreed to have that information recorded and covers about 5% of the U.S. population.

Interactions remained well below pre-pandemic levels for about two months as schools and universities closed and the state closed and then slowly reopened sectors of its economy. During that period, Florida’s rate of positive tests dropped from 11% to 2%, its rate of new cases flattened and its daily average death toll dropped from 60 to 30.

By late May, however, contacts had returned to a level that would allow significant spread of the virus and were back to near-normal in June as Florida’s economy reopened, the study showed. That occurred even though many people were still working from home, schools were closed, restaurants were limited to 50% indoor capacity and officials asked residents to keep unnecessary interactions to a minimum and avoid large crowds.

It was during June that Florida’s positivity rate for coronavirus tests skyrocketed from about 3% to 16%. And while the daily number of tests performed doubled in June, the average number of Floridians each day reported as newly infected increased nearly tenfold.

The number of interactions have dipped in July as the state closed bars to onsite drinking and skyrocketing death tolls made headlines, the study showed, but are still well above March and April.

West Florida computer science professor Ashok Srinivasan, who led the study, said its goal was to determine whether government mandates are needed to prevent social interactions during a pandemic or whether people will distance themselves on their own using their common sense. He said neither appears to be fully true.

“Our results show that Floridians decreased social contacts before the lockdown, which supports the commonsense school,” Srinivasan said. “On the other hand, they did not maintain it long enough to avoid epidemic spread. Government mandates did not appear to help, either.”

He said going forward “decision makers may need to work on getting people’s buy-in on social distancing and sustain it.”

Meanwhile, the state health department reported 140 more deaths Wednesday, bringing Florida’s weekly average to 118 a day, equal with Texas for the worst current seven-day average in the nation. Texas has about a third more people than Florida. One of the deaths reported Wednesday was a 9-year-old girl in rural north Florida.

A month ago, Florida was averaging 33 deaths a day before the daily totals began creeping up and then spiking dramatically the past two weeks. Since March 1, 5,459 people have died in Florida from COVID-19.

The state added 9,785 new confirmed cases Wednesday, bringing the total since March 1 to nearly 380,000. The percentage of tests returning positive has held steady the last two weeks at about 18%, after quadrupling between June 10 and July 10.

The state reported that 9,518 people were hospitalized Wednesday with COVID-19, about a 1% increase from Tuesday.

Also Wednesday:

— The Miami-Dade County school board announced it will consider withdrawing from the state high school athletic association over its decision not to delay the start of the fall sports season, including football.

— Five more federally funded testing sites are being opened in hard-hit South Florida, bringing the statewide total to 19.

— Miami Beach announced that it will no longer issue warnings to people not wearing masks in public. Starting Thursday, $50 citations will be issued.

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News Talk Florida Staff