20,000 Floridians have died with COVID-19
Image via AP.

coronavirus deaths
Florida crosses a grim milestone as the vaccine rollout begins.

As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout begins in Florida, state health officials confirmed that more than 20,000 Floridians have died with COVID-19.

Department of Health reported the deaths of 137 residents Monday for a total of 20,003 fatalities. An additional nonresident also died in the Sunshine State, raising the overall death toll to 20,271.

The department also reported 8,452 new positive cases. Overall, labs have diagnosed 1,134,383 people with COVID-19 in the state, including 18,937 nonresidents.

Florida’s deadly milestone also arrives as the nation kicks off what could be the beginning of the end of the pandemic. Gov. Ron DeSantis was at Tampa General Hospital to sign for Florida’s first vaccine delivery and looked on as the first front line worker received a vaccine.

In March, the United States began Operation Warp Speed to fast track a vaccine through the development and distribution process. Experts, including one present for the press conference, anticipated the vaccine might not be ready for public use until 2021. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave the vaccine their final approval Friday.

“Here we are, much less than a year, these vaccines have already been administered in Great Britain and Canada. They’re now going to be administered here in the United States,” the Governor said.

As coronavirus outbreaks continue across the country, the Sunshine State is also witnessing a surge in cases. Daily new cases have routinely topped 10,000, and Florida became the third state to record more than 1 million cases this month.

For all-day Sunday, the latest complete day available, officials counted 8,334 cases from 114,942 residents tested. Among the new positives, the median age was 40.

An increase in new cases was expected following Thanksgiving with heightened travel and gatherings. In addition to the rise in new cases, a possible spike was unfolding in the state’s positivity rates, but positivity rates have been fluctuating.

The positivity rate for new cases began increasing again the day after Thanksgiving, nearly neutralizing two weeks of improvements since positivity rates topped 10% last month. That day, the positivity rate was down to 6.2% but returned to 9.1% Dec. 1, the highest since mid-November. By Sunday, the rate was 8.3%.

However, COVID-19 cases and deaths reported by state health officials can sometimes be reported days or weeks later.

Over the summer, DeSantis shifted the state’s data focus away from the raw count and percent positivity rates, pointing instead to hospital visits with symptoms related to COVID-19 as his preferred metric.

After peaking at 15,999 coronavirus-related hospitalizations the week of July 5, DOH reported that hospitalizations declined. For seven consecutive weeks as of two weeks ago, the state has recorded week-over increases in hospitalizations.

Last week showed a downturn in new hospitalizations, from 9,131 two weeks ago to 7,915 last week. Officials may still update last week’s count and instead show an increase, as has happened in recent weeks.

As of Monday, 58,269 Floridians have been hospitalized after DOH recorded 142 new hospitalizations, a softer increase than what has become a new normal. The Agency for Health Care Administration reports that 4,932 people are currently hospitalized with the disease, an increase of 307 since Friday evening.

Florida, the third most populous state, is only behind California and Texas in the total count of new cases. Officials in California have reported 1.59 million cases while officials in Texas have confirmed 1.33 million cases.

The United States has seen a nationwide surge in coronavirus cases that has disproportionately affected the Upper Midwest. Nationally, more than 3,000 Americans were reported dead Wednesday, more than on D-Day or 9/11. Officials counted 1 million new cases in the span of five days, and more than 106,000 people are in the hospital.

Nine months prior to crossing 1 million infections, after officials confirmed the first COVID-19 cases in Florida on March 1, DeSantis ordered Surgeon General Scott Rivkees to declare a public health emergency in the state. Eight days after the emergency declaration, DeSantis issued a state of emergency, and both orders remain ongoing.

After the initial outbreak of new cases, at a time when access to coronavirus testing was low, officials had identified about 20,000 COVID-19 cases in Florida, recording just over 1,300 cases in a single day. After outbreaks subsided throughout April and May, cases began spiking in June and peaked at more than 15,000 cases in mid-July. In July alone, officials confirmed more than 300,000 new cases and the state’s total reached 470,386 by the end of the month.

Since October, cases have been on the rise again. The latest resurgence in coronavirus outbreaks has been a gradual increase in daily cases as opposed to the spike observed in the summer.

DeSantis spent his Tuesday in Washington, D.C., where President Donald Trump held an event on vaccine distribution. The Governor said the state’s proposal calls for vaccinating seniors in nursing homes before the end of December, while also getting vaccines into the hands of “high-contact” frontline health care workers in five urban areas by the end of next week.

“This was the first vaccine that’s really been politicized, unfortunately … and that’s going to be something that people are going to have to deal with,” he added.

While the FDA decision came only after public review of data from a large ongoing study, it has also been dogged by intense political pressure from the Trump administration, which has accused the agency of being too slow and even threatened to remove FDA chief Stephen Hahn if a ruling did not come Friday.

Instead of giving two doses, as the pharmaceutical manufacturer recommends, to high-risk populations such as nursing home residents and front-line hospital workers, the Governor on Friday suggested perhaps one dose could do.

“Just get as many doses out there,” the Governor said during a mental-health roundtable in Tampa. “I’m not sure that Pfizer would agree or FDA would agree, but I think just the point is, getting that first dose out really does make a difference, and I think you’ll see that.”

But on Monday, he sided with the federal rollout strategy. For each dose delivered, the federal government is holding on to a second dose until it’s time to distribute them.

“They didn’t want to send it all, I think smartly, because you don’t want to just keep 200,000 vaccines and tell someone they can’t get it, so you’re going to use that. And then when it’s time for the booster — 21 days — those other shots will come.”

Renzo Downey

Renzo Downey covers state government for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering state government for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.


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