The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A former Biden adviser sets Florida as the bellwether for the pandemic

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis holds a news conference at the Miami Dade College’s North Campus on Jan. 26 in Miami. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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For the first six months of the Biden presidency, Andy Slavitt served as a senior adviser on the coronavirus pandemic. Not necessarily because of his efforts, his tenure overlapped with a period when the pandemic was in retreat and optimism soaring. But he does certainly have some space to opine on what to expect from the progression of the virus.

On Thursday evening, that took the form of offering some iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove analysis of how the state of Florida has handled things to date.

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“One of the next big questions of the pandemic outlook will likely revolve around what happens in Florida,” he began in a lengthy Twitter thread. “And not just because the governor has been so out of step.”

That governor is Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), as you probably know. You probably know that because DeSantis has elevated his national profile dramatically by loudly endorsing a laissez tomber malade approach to the pandemic of late: Don’t close anything, don’t let mask mandates go into effect, muffle enthusiasm about vaccinations. He’s running for reelection this November and probably the presidency in two years’ time, and he’s making a bet that being the personal-freedom-plus-coughing candidate is the way to go.

Slavitt’s point was that this approach had twice left the state of Florida in a worse position when cases surged across the South during the summer — first, with the original strain of the virus in 2020 and then last year with the delta variant. In each summer, Florida’s recorded cases and deaths surged well ahead of national levels and even above other Southern/Sun Belt states.

At the same time, the state has not fared much better during the winter. Its per capita cases both last winter and now are generally in line with the country overall. Its current death toll is happily below national levels but also rising.

Slavitt’s point was that Florida therefore provides a useful case study in whether the rapid spread of the omicron variant plus reasonably broad vaccination will allow states to avoid spikes during periods in which cases have previously surged.

If Florida’s summer arrives with no precautions and no big uptick in cases, it could suggest that dropping precautions elsewhere (or maintaining a lack of precautions) is the best path forward. In other words, the combination of predicted increase, big population, lots of natural immunity from infections and a big chunk of vaccinated people could provide a useful — if uncontrolled — experiment in what the future of the pandemic looks like.

One way or the other.

To Slavitt’s point, Florida has, in fact, repeatedly been an outlier in both cases and deaths, relative both to the country overall and to other Southern states. On the graphs below, months in which Florida had higher per capita case and death totals are in red. Months in which the U.S. or Southern per capita totals were higher are in dark gray.

Florida has often been in worse shape than the country overall, often by a wide margin. That’s been particularly true in each of the past two summers (indicated with light-gray shading).

Slavitt’s point is, in part, that Florida offers a good test of where the country stands. His point is also in part that he thinks DeSantis has been irresponsible. And in part, he’s probably outlining his expectations to muffle any attempt by DeSantis to take credit for low case totals and deaths. After all, Slavitt can point to these comments as a pre-explanation that has little to do with the governor.

Here’s hoping that low-case scenario is the one we get to debate.