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‘All the makings of a disaster’: How Florida became a coronavirus epicentre

COVID-19 surge overwhelms Florida hospitals
WATCH: COVID-19 surge overwhelms Florida hospitals

Novel coronavirus cases continue to surge in the United States, but Florida has been hit particularly hard, often reporting around 10,000 cases per day over the last week.

On Wednesday morning, the Florida Department of Health reported that another 9,752 residents had been diagnosed with the virus, while 139 more had died. In total, the state has seen 379,619 cases and 5,345 deaths.

But Florida’s sudden surges didn’t come out of nowhere.

Coronavirus: Florida Gov. DeSantis highlights protection of ‘vulnerable’ as dozens of hospitals reach ICU capacity
Coronavirus: Florida Gov. DeSantis highlights protection of ‘vulnerable’ as dozens of hospitals reach ICU capacity

Johns Hopkins University said Wednesday that Florida’s percentage of positive tests had swelled to 18.87 per cent, more than three times the recommended maximum of five per cent from the World Health Organization.

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According to the university’s testing hub, the higher-than-usual numbers indicate the state has only been testing its sickest patients who sought medical attention, rather than “casting a wide enough net to know how much of the virus is spreading within its communities.”

The large influx of cases is also taking its toll on Florida’s health-care system. By Wednesday morning, Florida, where almost 21 per cent of all residents are above the age of 65, reported 22,243 residents had been hospitalized due to the virus.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the state was in “good shape” in a tweet on Tuesday, saying almost 20 per cent of ICU beds across the state were free, and nearly 24 per cent of hospital beds in Florida were available.

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But Leah Carpenter, nurse and CEO of Florida’s Memorial Hospital West, told Global News her hospital has seen a 26 per cent jump in COVID-19-related hospitalizations from the week before. She said her ICU beds are currently at 187 per cent capacity with 203 patients in hospital with the virus.

“We are packed to the gills,” said Carpenter, adding that her team has resorted to converting auditoriums, classrooms and conference centres and creating makeshift tents in order to ensure her hospital won’t have to turn anyone anyway.

Colin Furness, an epidemiologist with the University of Toronto, said the state has “all the makings of a disaster.”

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“I’m kind of surprised that they haven’t already buckled,” he said. “It actually has stretched far beyond what many other countries would have been able to do. But it’s going to break.”

Read more: Florida has so far seen more than 5,000 coronavirus deaths, nearly 350K cases

A Reuters analysis released eight days ago found that if Florida were a country, it would rank fourth in the world for the most new cases in a day behind the United States, Brazil and India.

“Florida’s daily increases in cases have already surpassed the highest daily tally reported by any European country during the height of the pandemic there,” the analysis read.

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“It has also broken New York state’s record of 12,847 new cases on April 10 when it was the epicentre of the U.S. outbreak.”

Lax policies, government reaction

Coronavirus: Florida’s ‘grim reaper’ speaks on need for statewide mandatory masks
Coronavirus: Florida’s ‘grim reaper’ speaks on need for statewide mandatory masks

DeSantis was accused of lying to Floridians last week by a protester by downplaying the virus and going so far as to blame the media, foreign workers and test tabulators as the state’s confirmed COVID-19 cases continue to soar.

On Tuesday, DeSantis told reporters Florida was regaining control over the virus, citing lower hospitalization and positive percentage rates.

“The trend is much better today than it was two weeks ago,” said DeSantis. “I am confident that we will get through this. I am confident that the folks… in our hospital systems will continue to do a great job and meet the demand. There is a lot of anxiety and fear out there and I think we are going to be able to get through it. We are not there yet.”

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Cases have been on the rise for the past week in Florida, coming to a head on July 12 when the state shattered U.S. records after recording more than 15,000 cases in one day.

Read more: Trump promises to control coronavirus spread as Florida cases surge over 5th straight day

One day later, the Herald-Tribune reported that DeSantis said during a press conference at the University of Florida hospital that testing was to blame for the state’s increase in cases — a notion that has been touted by U.S. President Donald Trump.

“The whole United States was probably not doing 144,000 tests in March,” said DeSantis. “If we were doing 80,000 tests a day in March or April, those numbers would’ve been dramatically higher in terms of case numbers from what we wound up having.”

Dr. Stanley Marks, chief medical officer for Memorial Healthcare System in Broward County, told the Associated Press Florida’s rising daily death rate shows “we’re not beating this disease yet,” expressing concern for Floridians who haven’t been following health guidelines.

“I’m concerned about my fellow Floridians that sometimes I see out doing things that just don’t make any sense in the middle of a pandemic,” he said. “We have got to get our fellow citizens to understand it’s up to them to help control this disease. Right now there is no magical medical bullet.”

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Coronavirus: U.S. COVID-19 cases surge amid reopening debate
Coronavirus: U.S. COVID-19 cases surge amid reopening debate

Anti-mask mentality

Although it is recommended that residents wear masks where physical distancing is not possible, DeSantis has refused to mandate mask-wearing, leaving the decision to implement mask rules and keep businesses open to individual counties.

“We’ve got to use every tool at our disposal,” Donald Axelrad, a professor Florida A&M University, said in a previous interview with Global News.

“It’s not clear to me why we would forego one of our most effective tools, that is, wearing a face mask. It’s broadly understood by the scientific community that these are effective. So I respect the governor, but I do not understand his thinking here. And I would ask him to reconsider.”

Read more: Florida son met friends against family’s wishes. Now dad has COVID-19, fighting for his life

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Anti-mask sentiment among residents has also cast a large shadow over Florida, where conspiracy theories and misinformation have been known to clash with the advice of medical professionals, sometimes producing fatal results.

In one instance, a restaurant rewarded protesters for choosing to go without a mask with free grilled-cheese sandwiches.

“This is America!” protester Chris Nelson shouted at officers who arrived at the restaurant in a video posted online. “It’s not communist China!”

In another, Floridians showed up to a Palm Beach County meeting to oppose “the devil’s laws” — a vote that would mandate masks — spouting unfounded claims and conspiracy theories about face coverings that referenced God, QAnon and Pizzagate.

Florida on track to become the next U.S. COVID-19 epicentre
Florida on track to become the next U.S. COVID-19 epicentre

Slow to close, quick to reopen

Florida was one of the first states in the U.S. to reopen, moving into Phase 2 of its recovery on June 5 before it had completely flattened its curve. Now, it is seeing unprecedented surges, while states like New York, which saw an initial widespread outbreak, are now seeing large COVID-19 case declines.

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According to the state’s guidelines, bars, pubs, taverns and restaurants have been operating at 50 per cent capacity since June, while gyms, retail stores and sports venues were allowed to operate at full capacity.

Read more: New York, once epicentre of coronavirus, sees daily death toll drop to 5

And while it was quick to reopen, Florida was also late to close.

DeSantis declared a state of emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March, signing a statewide executive order that would require residents to stay at home on April 1 — expiring May 4.

In contrast, New York had already issued stay-at-home orders by March 20, with its governor, Andrew Cuomo, making wearing masks mandatory in busy areas in mid-April.

— With files from Global News’ Jackson Proskow, the Associated Press and Reuters.