In Florida, there’s hurricane season, lobster season and now, according to Gov. Ron DeSantis, “covid season.”
DeSantis has argued that the recent record-breaking rise in new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations was unavoidable as temperatures rise and more people gather indoors, denying that easing restrictions and an uptick in tourism led to the surge.
But the claim that the time of year has a greater impact on transmission than mitigation measures such as mask mandates and social distancing contradicts guidance from researchers and public health experts, who warn people should get vaccinated and take precautions amid the rampant spread of the delta variant in Florida.
“It’s not just a summer thing,” Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health, told The Washington Post.
Salemi, who runs a coronavirus data dashboard, said he believes the tendency for people to stay indoors during warmer weather is just one factor attributable to the rise in cases, but he said it is a misrepresentation to discount the other four causes he and other experts have identified as fueling the state’s flood of cases and hospitalizations:
- The delta variant, a more transmissible mutation, already accounts for the vast majority of new infections nationwide. Even in well-vaccinated areas, infected visitors are passing on the virus to vaccinated people. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of an outbreak in Provincetown, Mass., attributed the spread in part to the highly contagious variant.
- About 50 percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated, leaving about half the state possibly exposed to the virus. Children under 12, who are not yet eligible for the authorized vaccines, are especially vulnerable. The portion of covid-19 deaths reported by the state among seniors older than 65 has declined but increased among those younger than 50, as older adults have led vaccination rates, according to data reviewed by Salemi.
- Amid the relaxation of covid safety rules coupled with “pandemic fatigue,” people have resumed in-person activities. In May, DeSantis signed a law giving him the power to suspend county- and city-ordered mask mandates and other pandemic-related restrictions. Meanwhile, Rolling Loud — an outdoor hip-hop festival that attracted tens of thousands of fans to a Miami venue last month — and other large gatherings worry experts such as Salemi who fear superspreader events exacerbating the surge.
- DeSantis has adamantly encouraged tourism in Florida, touting it as an “open” destination compared with states with more restrictions such as New York and California. His marketing ploy may have worked: The occupancy rate of Miami hotels, 72.2 percent, has outpaced the national average, 66.1 percent, the Miami Herald reported in late July. Air travel has appeared to roar back, with Miami’s airport reporting more than 3.3 million domestic and international travelers visiting in May, nearing the amount counted during the same period in 2019.
Since the start of June, Florida has reported 2.8 million new cases, or about 13 percent of the population — compared with the national average of 11 percent per state. Florida’s seven-day average has continued to rise, topping 20,000 this week for the first time since the pandemic.
Salemi said he anticipates the wave will peak in “the relatively near future,” which would lend to DeSantis’s narrative that the surge was seasonal, even though Salemi said Floridians should remain wary.
“The people who are arguing it’s just a summer thing, they’re probably going to be able to still argue it’s just a summer thing because this wave is not going to last forever,” he said. “It’s running through the population so rapidly, so many people are getting infected.”
DeSantis’s claim that cases would rise in warmer weather contrasts with former president Donald Trump’s assertion early in the pandemic that the virus would be thwarted by summer heat — which was disproved when infections ballooned nationally last summer.
When asked about what evidence supported the “covid season” theory, DeSantis’s spokespeople shared links with The Post to studies that they said proved the virus spread widely in tropical climates during the summer.
“Despite any assertions to the contrary, COVID-19 ‘waves’ absolutely appear to be caused by still misunderstood seasonal patterns,” spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said in a statement.
“We reiterate that, at best, these measures have made a minimal impact, and may slightly delay, though certainly does not stop COVID-19,” she added, referring to “non-pharmaceutical interventions” such as masking.
But the three articles they shared contradicted that argument, with one saying “the spread of COVID-19 is largely shaped by several factors like population density, social distancing, international travel routes, school closures, event cancellations, mask mandates, and hygiene.”
“Overestimating the role of environmental factors may be equally perilous if policymakers anticipate a greater reduction due to seasonality than will actually occur,” warned researchers who DeSantis’s spokespeople cited.
When The Post asked DeSantis’s office about inconsistencies with the statement and studies, his representatives said in a written response that “seasonality had an impact on COVID prevalence” and mask mandates issued by two of the state’s largest counties were ineffective.
“Ironically, the FL counties that had mask mandates last year (Broward, Miami-Dade) were hit much harder by last summer’s COVID surge, with the highest case rates and hospitalizations in 2020 concentrated in South Florida,” spokeswoman Christina Pushaw wrote in an email.
While the populous counties led the state last summer with daily infections, a Post analysis of per capita cases found the counties ranked lower than other counties without mandates relative to the size of their population.
DeSantis’s office did not respond to requests for data underlying their claim about hospitalizations or questions about the per capita case data.
Even if people are spending time indoors, especially in places with poor ventilation, during the summer, that is not uncommon for Florida during the rest of the year, said Aileen Marty, a physician and professor at Florida International University.
In the Sunshine State, the weather remains humid and balmy year-round, which is why some people, dubbed “snowbirds,” from northern states such as New York have second homes in Florida to visit during the winter.
Claims that an outbreak is unavoidable in warmer weather could deter people from changing their behavior and “deliberately fools people into thinking that the problem is an inescapable aspect of nature,” Marty said.
Marty said the novel coronavirus remains relatively new compared with other viruses and not enough data has accumulated since the beginning of 2020 to determine the environmental facts that could influence its course. But the available data from Florida shows that the state has experienced waves throughout the year, including last year’s winter surge, she said.
In January, the weekly average of new cases surpassed 15,000, or about 5,000 cases shy of this week’s numbers.
“It’s misleading to use the term ‘season,’ ” Marty said.
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