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Despite grim virus numbers, DeSantis says state is ‘turning this thing back’

John Kennedy
jkennedy@gatehousemedia.com
Winter Haven News Chief

TALLAHASSEE — As new daily cases of coronavirus in Florida dipped slightly below 10,000 for only the first time in a week, Gov. Ron DeSantis still found reason Tuesday to declare “we’re turning this thing back in a good direction.”

The Florida Health Department reported an additional 9,440 confirmed cases of COVID-19 overnight, along with another 134 deaths. That brought Tuesday’s count to 369,834 Florida cases and 5,206 COVID-19-related deaths.

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Still, flanked by state health care and hospital officials, DeSantis found glimmers of improvements in hospital admissions, at least in Central Florida.

The governor also said that the state continued to have sufficient hospital capacity, even though he’s been forced to dispatch 1,400 contracted health care workers to help with staffing, particularly in severely strained South Florida.

Without providing much data, DeSantis, though, said that in some parts of the state emergency department admissions have declined and hospital bed use has “plateaued.”

“That is much better today than it was two weeks ago, and I think it will continue to improve,” DeSantis said.

Among the 77,160 tests for coronavirus reported Tuesday, 13.62% of them were positive for the disease. That’s close to the 13.4% average for the past two weeks, records show, and below a high mark of 18.6% on July 8.

The positive test rate in Miami-Dade County, which has the most coronavirus cases in the state, has averaged 22.6% for the past two weeks. DeSantis didn’t mention conditions there Monday, instead saying that across Central Florida, several counties are reporting positivity rates in the single digits.

“That was not the case two weeks ago,” DeSantis said. “These things take time. But I think the trend is much better today than it was two weeks ago.”

DeSantis, who has shunned calls for a statewide mask mandate, was sued Monday by the state’s largest teachers union over plans to reopen schools for some brick-and-mortar instruction next month.

The governor’s briefing on the virus Tuesday included representatives of the Florida Hospital Association, the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, two doctors from the Orlando area, and Mary Mayhew, secretary of the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration.

DeSantis said he was looking to “give Floridians some reassurance.” Health care officials touted the shared effort of hospitals to manage the surge of caseloads and the role of health care workers worn out and dealing with staff shortages caused by employees sickened by the virus.

Mayhew’s own agency has reported dozens of Florida hospitals have run out of intensive care unit bed space. While many are in the state’s smallest counties, Broward, Escambia, Bay, Hernando and Leon are also among those also reporting ICU shortages.

Statewide, 21.7% of hospital beds were available Tuesday and 15.4% of ICU beds.

“We have the room, we have the bed space to do that, what we lack at this point is the staff to help do that,” said Crystal Stickle, interim president of the Florida Hospital Association.

But Stickle said that between the contract nurses and other health care staff directed by the state and cooperation between individual hospitals, the state has been able to meet the surge.

While elective surgeries were scaled back by some hospitals earlier this month to free space, officials Monday indicated that approach was no longer needed in most health care centers. They said that even with the latest demand on space, Floridians should not put off seeking hospital care for illnesses unrelated to COVID-19.

“It’s important for our patients to know that our COVID patients are cohorted together in a place,” said Dr. Scott Brady, a vice-president at AdventHealth in Central Florida. “You’re not going to go into a room where you’re sharing it with a COVID patient.”