DeSantis: Florida's COVID case rate is now the lowest in America

DeSantis: Florida's COVID case rate is now the lowest in America
AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

Great news, but he’s taking credit for the steep decline in cases in Florida after he spent August insisting that he bore no blame for the brutal Delta surge the case endured. Which, yes, that’s politics and he’s a politician. But even so.

Florida is indeed rock bottom among the 50 states in COVID cases per 100,000 residents right now. Alaska tops the list with 94 per 100K while DeSantis’s state is last with just eight cases. In August, when cases exploded, he argued that his state’s surge was “seasonal” and he had evidence to back that up. The southern U.S. had a bad wave in the summer of 2020 and then another in the summer of 2021, probably because the brutal heat forced people to spend more time indoors where the virus can be transmitted. Lefty critics sneered about “the DeSantis variant” because they dislike his opposition to mandates but the hard truth is that states are likely to experience surges during periods when the weather is inhospitable to outdoor activity no matter what they do.

And sometimes they experience surges for no discernible reason. At the same time Florida was mired in COVID misery in August, Oregon was too — despite the fact that its governor took to mandating masks outdoors in the name of limiting transmission. Why would Oregon and Florida be hit at the same time when they’re on opposite ends of the country and have very different climates? *Shrug* COVID waves are mysterious. Why they hit hard when they do and then rapidly diminish after a stretch of high transmission still isn’t fully clear to science.

But if you can’t blame a governor for starting his state’s COVID wave, you can’t rightly credit him for ending that wave. I’ve noticed the same thing Tim Miller has lately, DeSantis supporters touting the fact that Florida’s case count is low even though case counts typically fall organically after a state experiences a major surge:

Miller’s correct. Florida was famously middle-of-the-pack in deaths per capita for the first 15 months of the pandemic, a statistical rebuke to critics who accused DeSantis of mismanaging the pandemic by not ordering restrictions like mandates and capacity limits. “If his policies are so bad, why are so many blue states doing worse than Florida?” his supporters responded. Critics had no answer.

But the catastrophe in August scrambled that, pushing Florida’s death rate into the top 10. It also now has the eighth-highest case rate of any state since the start of the pandemic, far higher than other populous states like California, Texas, and New York. Is that due to the hard line DeSantis took against mandates? I doubt it. One of the takeaways from the data we have on mask mandates having done little to influence infection is that state policy only marginally influences behavior that causes transmission. Vaccine mandates and vaccine passports in Florida would have prevented some chains of transmission in August but I’m skeptical that it would have been enough to meaningfully blunt a wave that killed thousands.

Even so, if DeSantis gets credit for Florida having a low case count after a horrendous wave, shouldn’t Gavin Newsom get the same credit for California’s steep decline this past spring? Florida’s positivity rate is currently 3.2 percent. California’s rate is just 1.8 percent and got down as low as 0.6 percent this past summer:

How about New York? They’re currently at 2.1 percent positivity and spent nearly five months last year under one percent after getting obliterated by the initial wave of COVID in March 2020:

All three states took a beating and then saw cases dive as suddenly and mysteriously as they had risen. My half-assed guess is that each big wave bred so much natural immunity into the population in hot spots so quickly that the virus ran out of vectors of transmission within a few months. In fact, since that original wave last March, New York has steadily had a positivity rate around three percent or less. The only exception was last winter when it ticked up to 7.9 percent, which itself isn’t particularly high. Florida’s current rock-bottom case rate is likely a simple artifact of a vicious wave having run its course. A population’s “reward” for surviving a bad stretch of COVID is getting several months of a good stretch.

It’s fair to call out the DeSantis critics who did wrongly blame him for his state’s wave in August, like Jim Acosta. If they thought his policies were the key driver of Florida’s surge, they should explain how those policies square with a long stretch of declining cases now. (Right as schools have reopened, no less.) But the better take is that government policy likely has much less influence over local waves than intangible epidemiological dynamics do. That’s not an excuse for DeSantis’s self-serving opposition to vaccine mandates, just the reality.

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