Which U.S. state has the lowest COVID-19 rate right now?
It’s not California, home of America’s strictest mask and vaccine requirements. Nor is it Vermont, even though 71 percent of residents there have been fully inoculated — the most in the country.
No, the state with the fewest daily COVID cases per capita is the same one that recently had more than any other: Florida.
It’s been quite the reversal. In mid-August, Florida was averaging about 25,000 new cases a day, or about 116 for every 100,000 residents. That was the worst rate in the U.S. — and one of the worst in the world. Awash in the hypercontagious Delta variant, the Sunshine State became one of the epicenters of the global pandemic.
During the past two months, however, Florida’s daily average has plummeted by more than 90 percent, to about 1,700 cases, or eight for every 100,000 residents. That’s roughly half of California’s current COVID rate and less than a quarter of Vermont’s. Hawaii (with nine cases for every 100,000 residents) is the only other state in single digits.
But don’t congratulate Florida just yet.
Like everything else about America’s COVID ordeal, the state’s declining infection numbers are being turned into political talking points. Conservatives on Twitter and Fox News now claim that Florida’s turnaround vindicates the hands-off policies of Republican Gov. (and likely 2024 presidential hopeful) Ron DeSantis, who spent his summer prohibiting local schools, businesses and governments from trying to minimize transmission by requiring masks or vaccination while emphasizing costly post-infection treatments such as monoclonal antibodies instead.
“DeSantis critics and the mainstream media remain quiet as Florida's COVID numbers drop,” read a recent headline on Newsmax, a right-wing site.
“Well it’s official, Florida currently has the LOWEST per capita COVID cases among the contiguous 48 states,” Steven Krakauer, executive producer of "The Megyn Kelly Show," tweeted last week. “Looking forward to the next batch of DeSantis media coverage that's sure to be coming soon…”
“And they’ve done it without mask or vaccine mandates,” added conservative radio host Clay Travis. “This is why Ron DeSantis terrifies the coronabros. Because all their shutdowns & mandates, which destroy freedoms, provide no benefits.”
But is that true? Did DeSantis “do” anything to improve Florida’s COVID numbers? And does the state’s 180-degree turn somehow prove that more cautious policies “provide no benefits”?
The answer is no.
It’s doubtful even DeSantis himself would claim he’s the reason Florida is recording so many fewer COVID cases today than in August. The virus, we’ve known for some time, comes in waves — waves that ascend, peak and ultimately recede on a remarkably consistent timeline.
According to the New York Times’s David Leonhardt, “Covid has often followed a regular — if mysterious — cycle. In one country after another, the number of new cases has often surged for roughly two months before starting to fall.” And “the Delta variant, despite its intense contagiousness, has followed this pattern.”
Florida is no exception: Cases started rising there in late June and started falling in late August — right on schedule. Likewise, all the states where COVID cases have fallen the most during the past two weeks — Tennessee, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Kentucky, North Carolina — are states that endured huge peaks in mid-September. And the higher the peak — the more people recently infected — the sharper the descent.
Epidemiologists aren’t sure why COVID seems to come and go in two-month intervals. Maybe that’s how long it takes to reach the easiest targets within a particular cluster of humanity; maybe people themselves “follow cycles of taking more and then fewer COVID precautions, depending on their level of concern,” as Leonhardt put it. Probably it’s a bit of both.
Either way, the DeSantis argument acknowledges all this. Waves of infection are inevitable — and Florida tends to suffer in the summer, when the heat and humidity force people indoors, his proponents say. Insisting on precautions like vaccines and masks won’t stop these waves. So what’s the point of continuing to infringe on people’s freedom?
There’s a certain logic at work here. One day, experts predict, SARS-CoV-2 will become endemic, spreading seasonally around the globe in ever-evolving variations that might make a lot of people feel ill for a few days but are ultimately much less damaging and deadly because everybody has some degree of immunity through vaccination or prior infection.
At that point, mask mandates and vaccine passports will be more trouble than they’re worth.
The problem, though, is that the U.S. had not achieved endemicity this summer — and probably hasn’t achieved it even now. Forty-three percent of Americans still haven’t been fully vaccinated, including a third of the eligible population. Boosters have yet to restore full protection against serious illness to older and medically vulnerable Americans who’ve seen their immunity wane over time and in the face of Delta’s evasive properties. And kids, the vast majority of whom aren’t vaccinated, are back in classrooms nationwide for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
As a result, letting the virus rip without encouraging precautionary measures such as indoor masking and universal vaccination remains a very risky proposition. In DeSantis’s case, he has effectively discouraged such measures, going so far as to tweet about monoclonal antibodies — an expensive treatment that helps only after you’ve gotten infected and potentially transmitted the virus to others — 30 times more often than vaccines. And in addition to banning mask requirements, he’s seeking to reward those who resist vaccine mandates at work with unemployment benefits and, in an effort to get anti-vax police officers to move to Florida, $5,000 bonuses.
So while it’s true that COVID waves may come — and go — regardless of what leaders like DeSantis do, the more important question is how their constituents do when those waves inevitably arrive.
And the bottom line is that this summer in Florida, people did not do as well as they should have. Why? Because far too many of them died. The raw numbers alone are staggering. In all of 2020 — before vaccines essentially eliminated the risk of death for most recipients — 23,384 Floridians died of COVID-19. Now nearly as many — 21,000 and counting — have died in the past four months alone. And another 135 Floridians are still dying, on average, every single day.
The relative numbers are even more damning. Before Delta hit, Florida ranked 26th in the nation for cumulative COVID deaths per capita; now it ranks ninth. What’s more, three of the states above Florida on that list — New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts — suffered the bulk of their deaths right in the beginning of the pandemic, long before vaccinations and other interventions drastically reduced the virus’s deadliness.
In contrast, Florida is one of the only states where more people have been dying each day during the Delta wave — long after free, safe and effective vaccines became widely available to all Americans age 12 or older — than during any previous wave of the virus. Most of the other states in that category — Mississippi, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Alaska — are places where conservative leaders have prioritized freedom from COVID restrictions over freedom from COVID itself.
The tragedy is that, unlike before, the vast majority of these deaths were preventable. DeSantis and his defenders might argue that it’s only a matter of time before the worst of Delta hits places like California too, further proving that a more cautious approach to the virus “provide[s] no benefits.” But that doesn’t explain why Florida’s peak daily COVID death rate was 2.5 times higher than California’s last summer — and nearly six times higher this summer. It doesn’t explain why California fell about 10 places on the state-by-state list of cumulative death rates at the same time Florida climbed nearly 20.
And it doesn’t explain why whatever price Californians paid this summer — no lockdowns, no business closures, no shuttered classrooms, no official curbs on indoor drinking or dining; just masks and tests in school and masks and vaccinations at some indoor businesses — was less acceptable than the price tens of thousands of Floridians paid when they lost their lives.
In the end, policy can do only so much during a pandemic. But leaders like DeSantis do have some power to encourage or discourage safety measures, and some responsibility for the behaviors they help to normalize (or not). Their supporters can give them credit for declining case numbers if they choose. But they’re also accountable for how much damage each wave of infection leaves in its wake.
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