TAMPA — Florida on Sunday reported the highest single-day total of new coronavirus cases by any state since the start of the pandemic, with more than 15,000 new infections, eclipsing the previous high of 12,274, recorded in New York on April 4 amid the worst of its outbreak.
The number reflects both increased testing and a surge in transmission of the virus that has strained hospitals, led to shortages of a key antiviral drug, and amplified fears about the pace at which the state lifted restrictions on movement and commerce.
And it is a new red mark on the nation’s foundering efforts to combat the virus.
“It has just been horrifically busy,” John Toney, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of South Florida, said of hospitals, where patients were flooding in and doctors and nurses were growing overwhelmed and exhausted.
“It’s reminiscent of what everyone dealt with in New York,” Toney said. “It’s certainly putting a strain on a lot of the systems, even though hospitals are trying to accommodate.”
The increase of 15,300 cases has come as Disney World has let tourists back onto its rides, the Republican National Convention is set to begin in Jacksonville in August, and Governor Ron DeSantis has ordered that public schools reopen for five days a week when classes resume next month. “If you can do Home Depot, if you can do Walmart, if you can do these things,” the governor said, “we absolutely can do the schools.”
The surge in Florida reflects how the spread of the virus has escalated in much of the country, particularly in Southern states where governors following President Trump’s lead have pushed aggressively to ease restrictions and encourage businesses to reopen. Now some states are trying to add mask mandates and other protective measures and seeing renewed tension between governors and mayors as they disagree over how much to pull back on the reopening.
In some ways, the situation in Florida differs from the worst days of the pandemic in New York.
Some of the increase in cases reflects the dramatic increase in testing; Florida is testing several times the number of people that New York was at the height of its crisis. The spread of the disease under the Florida sun does not play out with the same dread as it did in crowded city streets in New York. Hospitals are better supplied and somewhat more prepared to treat patients than they were in March and April. And while the daily death toll in Florida climbed to a high last week, it remains far below the levels that New York suffered, at least for now.
“It was very difficult to figure out how to test. Now it’s a little easier,” DeSantis, a Republican, told reporters Saturday, adding that concerns about equipment and supplies had eased, as well.
“These are now tools in the toolbox,” he added. “If somebody comes in, they can be treated for this.”
On the other hand, there is something demoralizing, if sadly predictable, in seeing the virus make a comeback both in communities that had expected it to fade and began easing restrictions, and others that had tried to maintain safety measures only for residents to ignore them.
“We expected this to happen,” said Jay Wolfson, a professor of public health and medicine at the University of South Florida. “The calculus for this disease is proximity, congestion and time,” he added. “You had people going to parties. You had restaurants open up. You had bars open up. You had beaches open up. You had graduation parties for students.”
Even with the dramatic spike in cases and sickness in the state, many Floridians remain blasé about the virus and averse to the simple act of wearing a mask to prevent its spread.
On Clearwater Beach, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Jason Dormois, 17, part of a crew handling sun lounges, said he was not worried. “I’m out in the sun; I’m a healthy young man,” he said. He said he had been out of his job for two months and stuck at home, and “people need the money.”
Others were appalled people were not taking the virus more seriously.
“It’s asinine, the way people are acting. Look at the beach — not one mask,” said Anthony Babcock, 47, who had worked in music publishing. “And those who say it’s a free country — it’s not about being a free country. It’s about being smart. We’ll see what happens in two weeks.”
From the start, the response to the virus has been defined by a tug of war as officials have had to balance taking aggressive steps to inhibit its spread with limiting the array of economic and social consequences those measures unleashed.
Now that balance is being calibrated yet again as the outbreak is growing across 37 states, and eight states — all but one in the South or Southwest — set single-day death records over the last week: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Tennessee.
The states seeing the record increases were often among those where officials had delayed implementing stay-at-home orders in the spring and moved quickly to ease the restrictions they did put in place.
Now many officials are preaching caution. In Mississippi, Governor Tate Reeves, a Republican, betrayed his frustration as he urged residents to wear masks and follow social distancing measures. “Nothing is going to work unless people will just follow the rules that are in place,” he said in a recent news conference. “I know I sound like a broken record.”
Masks will be required in Louisiana starting Monday, as the virus has intensified in a state that had been one of the early hot spots.
“If you don’t like the mask mandate, then don’t like it,” said Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, “but wear your mask anyway if you’re going to be out in public.”
In the Houston area, one of the hardest hit, coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have remained extremely high. The Texas health department reported 1,747 positive coronavirus tests Saturday in Greater Houston, more than triple the April peak; a seven-day trend line in new cases has held fairly steady since late June. Last week, more than 11 percent of coronavirus tests were positive, compared with 16 percent the previous week and nearly 7 percent in late April. Medical centers have been creating new coronavirus intensive care units, including in post-surgical recovery rooms and previously shuttered wards.
Maintaining adequate staffing has been a key challenge, with hundreds of local medical professionals out sick or in quarantine. Managers are offering bonuses to nurses, attempting to hire new ones, and reassigning staff from other specialties.
A color-coded designation that signals to ambulance crews which hospitals are busiest and should be avoided has lost its meaning now that most hospitals are operating well beyond their typical capacity. For emergency departments and intensive care units, “It’s pretty much been entirely reading ‘saturation’ in red for weeks now,” said Dr. David Persse, medical director of the Houston Fire Department. “Our local rule that everybody knows is that when everybody’s closed, everybody’s open.”
Two public hospitals that serve as a safety net for Houston-area patients who are uninsured and those with Medicaid have been particularly hard-pressed. “The only way they’ve maintained any semblance of sanity is, we basically transfer patients as soon as we receive them” after stabilizing and assessing them, said Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, chief executive of the Harris Health System, the public system. “As soon as a bed becomes empty, someone rolls up from the emergency room.”
Florida has recorded more than 269,800 cases, with more than 4,200 total deaths, according to a New York Times database. There were also single-day records Sunday in the counties that include Florida’s largest cities, including Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Fort Myers, West Palm Beach, Pensacola, and Sarasota.
The latest data show the increasing strains that hospitals are under. Some 43 intensive care units in 21 Florida counties have hit capacity and have no beds available. Doctors are working longer hours and, faced with shortages of the key drug remdesivir, doctors and nurses are having to choose between patients and even to change the remdesivir criteria to use it later in the disease.
Still, many residents continued to flout health guidelines.
In Ybor City, a popular area of Tampa lined with pirate-themed bars, tattoo parlors and cigar shops, restaurants were open. At Zydeco Brew Werks, a sign on the front door read, “City ordinance: A face mask is required to enter this establishment.”
And yet no one wore a mask inside, except for the employees. There might have been fewer people compared to the days before the pandemic, yet little else about the atmosphere was different.
Kent White, who wore a bandanna that said “Make America Strong Again,” said he tried to keep his face covered, but he was still frustrated by the economic devastation caused by the virus. He said his business building gondolas had suffered because of supply chain disruptions, and he couldn’t get raw materials into the country from China.
“We can’t keep the country shut down,” White, 60, said. “It’s done so much damage to this country, and that continues to damage people.”
Bradley Wasinda, 47, who works at a restaurant, said he had tried to encourage patrons to cover their faces when in the restaurant but not eating. But the effort was futile.
“Can I be honest with you? I’ve given up on trying to enforce it,” he said, describing the fiery responses his requests incited. “I gave up,” he said. “I’m over it.”