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Health experts urge caution on reopening as Florida tops 2,000 deaths

Staff Writer
Walton Sun
Walton Sun

Florida surpassed 2,000 COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, a milestone that health experts say should serve as a sobering reminder to exercise caution as the state reopens.

“In a rather short period of time we lost over 2,000 people in Florida to COVID-19, a disease we hadn’t even heard of before this year,” said Dr. Marissa Levine, a professor of public health and family medicine at the University of South Florida who leads the school’s Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice. “As we work to reopen Florida it is critical for us all to remember that we each have a role in controlling this pandemic. Our individual and collective actions will determine the course of this pandemic in our own communities and will be the key as to whether we experience an even greater spike of disease and death in the coming months.”

Florida health officials reported the state’s first COVID-19 death on March 6, meaning it took just 74 days to top 2,000 deaths.

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The 55 deaths reported Tuesday brought the state to 2,052 lives lost to COVID-19, or 28 a day on average since the first Florida death.

The novel coronavirus has become one of the leading causes of death in Florida in just over two months. Based on 2018 death totals, 2,052 deaths would rank 16th among Florida’s top causes of death, above homicides and HIV.

Influenza and pneumonia killed 3,082 people in Florida in 2018. The coronavirus could top that this year.

Florida health officials are reporting a steady stream of new coronavirus cases, and more deaths are sure to follow.

The state’s coronavirus case total rose by 502 Tuesday to 46,944.

Floridians should be careful as they emerge from a month-long lockdown, said Levine, who previously served as Virginia’s state health commissioner.

“We know the virus is still circulating in our communities in Florida as well as around the nation and the globe,” Levine said. “Although we don’t have complete information, our best estimates tell us that many in our communities still remain vulnerable to the virus. Given Florida’s demographics and the burden of chronic disease in the population, many of us are at high risk of serious complications and even death.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis began lifting Florida’s lockdown earlier this month. He has focused on the fact that the state’s health care system has not been overwhelmed, as some models predicted, and hospitals have plenty of available beds.

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DeSantis touted his reopening strategy during a press conference in Orlando Monday. He has branded it the “Safe. Smart. Step by Step.” plan as he seeks to avoid criticism that he is moving too fast, something public health officials are warning against.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said during a U.S. Senate hearing last week that “the consequences could be really serious” if states reopen “prematurely.”

“I’m just looking forward to helping bring us back,” DeSantis said Monday. “Obviously we still have issues with public health; that’s not going to go away, but I think we have a pathway to get Florida moving again.”

DeSantis is pushing a phased reopening that accelerated this week when gyms, libraries and museums were allowed to welcome people at 50% capacity. Restaurants and other retail establishments were allowed to increase from 25% to 50% occupancy.

The governor also allowed babershops and hair salons to reopen last week, and many municipalities have reopened beaches.

Public health experts worry that the number of new cases and deaths could spike if the state reopens and people don’t continue to practice social distancing and take other precautions.

“Our only tools to deal with this have remained the same: physical distancing (including cloth face coverings) and aggressive hygienic practices,“ Levine said. ”Our ability to adapt and incorporate those practices into our everyday lives will determine the success of our reopening. I am hopeful that we will not interpret reopening as a return to the normal we once knew, but rather to a new normal that incorporates the adaptations we need to implement to protect one another.“