‘This is not going to be over in weeks.’ Coronavirus deaths expected to double every four days in Florida

Tribune Content Agency

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Deaths from the new coronavirus are on track to double every four days in Florida, prompting pleas from public health officials for people to stay home to flatten the epidemic’s curve and avoid the surge of sick patients that are straining New York City’s hospitals.

Twenty-nine people have died so far in Florida, according to the state’s official tally. New York — the outbreak’s epicenter in the United States — has reported 385 deaths, a number that is on pace to double every two days.

The full extent of the pandemic’s toll in Florida can’t be projected with certainty, but the virus likely will continue to be a threat for months as opposed to weeks, said Mary Jo Trepka, an epidemiologist at Florida International University.

“You see a range of estimates because there are a lot of unknowns,” she said. “There are unknowns as to how much spread has occurred. There are unknowns as to how well people will adhere to social distancing. It is safe to say this is not going to be over in weeks. It could well be months.”

Three of Florida’s confirmed deaths have occurred in Broward County; all were residents of Atria Willow Wood, a Fort Lauderdale assisted-living facility. Three more deaths were announced Thursday by the company that owns the 18-acre complex on West Commercial Boulevard. A 67-year-old doctor from Margate who tested positive also died, Broward Medical Examiner Craig Mallak said. Those additional four deaths have not been confirmed by the state and are not included in the official tally.

Public health officials in South Florida are urging residents to stay home to minimize the spread of the disease.

“If we don’t do what the CDC and what the experts in epidemiology and in the science of pandemics are telling us to do, South Florida will be in the same situation as New York City is in today,” said Dr. Alina Alonso, Palm Beach County’s health department director. “We can stop that from happening.”

Although an imperfect barometer, deaths are considered to be a more reliable indicator of how the epidemic is unfolding than infections, because testing varies by location.

On the state level, Florida has acted less aggressively than New York to implement stringent social-distancing measures.

Florida was among the first states to close bars, issuing an order shutting them down on St. Patrick’s Day on March 17. Restaurants were told to operate at 50% capacity.

But Gov. Ron DeSantis was slower to implement more aggressive measures. New York City shut down bars and restaurant dining rooms on March 17, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo closed nonessential businesses on March 22.

DeSantis didn’t shut down restaurant dining rooms statewide until March 20. He also has opted against doing a statewide stay-at-home order, although some local communities, including Broward and Orange counties, have.

DeSantis also ordered travelers from the New York City metro area to isolate themselves for 14 days upon arriving to Florida. South Florida Sun Sentinel reporters found visible screening was nonexistent Wednesday at Fort Lauderdale’s airport.

As testing has increased, new cases are rising by the hundreds daily in Florida — on a pace to double every three days.

Epidemiologists, though, have an incomplete picture because testing is still limited in most areas.

New York has done four times the testing, when adjusted for population, than Florida. Florida has tested about 27,000 people compared with about 100,000 people who have been tested in New York, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Florida is reporting 2,484 cases of coronavirus as of 6 p.m. Thursday, including 1,333 cases in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. New York has more than 30,000 cases and 385 deaths.

Models give grim projections on how the virus could unfold. Epidemiologists at Imperial College in London estimated that as many as 2.2 million could die if social-distancing measures weren’t put in place. Researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation are forecasting more than 81,000 deaths in the United States over the next four months when factoring in social-distancing measures that have been enacted.

Scientists are dealing with a variety of challenges when it comes to determining how hard the virus will hit Florida and exactly how long it will last, Trepka said. The new coronavirus is a novel virus that has not been seen in humans, and scientists are trying to determine how it will behave. For instance, several preliminary studies suggest heat and humidity could slow transmission during the summer, although it would likely return in the fall.

Trepka said it will take potentially weeks for social-distancing measures to lower Florida’s numbers. Wuhan, China, has been on a state-imposed lockdown since Jan. 23. China is planning to lift the lockdown on April 8 with new cases falling to zero last week.

“It is not something we are going to see in the next few days,” Trepka said. “It’s going to take awhile. It is very frustrating. It takes awhile before we see any good coming of it.”


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