From 1st cases to 1.9 million: 1 year of COVID-19 in Florida

The last 365 days were both a blur and full of stories we know too well

Mask wearing became the norm across Florida even though most communities never required it.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It was a Sunday night one year ago that the Florida Department of Health announced by tweet that a 29-year-old Tampa-area woman and a 53-year-old man in Manatee County had “presumptive cases” of coronavirus.

The pandemic that we had watched spread from Wuhan, China, around the world officially reached the Sunshine State on March 1, 2020.

“Despite these cases, the overall threat to the public remains low,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said after acknowledging CDC confirmation of the cases the next day.

Few people, especially state and national leaders, believed projections that COVID-19 cases would explode over the coming weeks and months to threaten not only lives but our health care system, even our livelihoods. Coronavirus would quickly become the all-consuming issue of 2020 -- a year that was both a blur and full of stories of suffering, loss, compassion and strength that we’ll never forget.

We all lost something over those 12 months.
Family and friends.
Careers, businesses and jobs.

Every day of the last year, News4Jax has broken down the new cases, deaths and, more recently, vaccination rates -- and tried our best to give perspective and meaning to the data. We’ve also worked to put a face on the suffering the virus caused. We continue to do so.

Over the course of the year, 1.9 million people in Florida caught the virus. That’s nearly one out of every 10 residents of the state. Four percent of those infected -- 79,344 people -- were hospitalized. More than 31,000 died -- 2,560 of those lives were lost in the 11 counties of Northeast Florida. More than 1.1 million jobs were lost.

Hospitals filled -- mostly in South Florida -- during the state’s first peak last summer, then emptied in the fall. But those beds filled again all across Florida during the state’s second peak that began around Thanksgiving and continued through January.

While the vast majority of nearly two million Floridians sickened by the disease last year have certainly recovered -- although the state doesn’t report that number -- and just over half the jobs lost in the spring have returned, we live in a different place as a society than we did one year ago.

Story continues after interactive timeline (assembled by senior producer Eric Wallace)

An invisible enemy; an unfolding disaster

Florida reported its first two deaths from the disease five days after those first two infections were confirmed. The following week, the virus first surfaced in Northeast Florida. A 68-year-old Nassau County man who had recently visited Germany got sick, and a tourist from New York who was staying in St. Johns County was hospitalized with COVID-19.

On March 12, an 83-year-old resident at an adult living facility in Deerwood was the first person diagnosed in Jacksonville. He later died of the disease.

Response to the pandemic quickly evolved from simple advice to social distance and wash hands frequently to quickly the cancelation of all large gatherings.

The Players Championship 2020 started normally with thousands of fans surrounding the iconic island green at TPC Sawgrass for a Military Appreciation Day concert featuring The Chainsmokers. Two days later, the golfers played the opening round without spectators. The next day, the PGA Tour pulled the plug and sent everyone home.

Spring break for public schools was first extended for a week, then students were told to stay home and be taught remotely for the rest of the school year.

Before the end of the month, the state banned visitors from the 4,000 senior-living facilities and nursing homes in Florida and urged everyone 65 and older to stay home for 14 days.

April 1: 7,773 cases/144 deaths -- Thirty days after those first two cases were confirmed in Florida, it became the 34th state in the nation to institute a stay-at-home order. Bars and non-essential retail stores closed. Restaurants could serve take-out only. Grocery stores reduced hours to allow more sanitation and to restock bare shelves. They set aside senior-only and first-responder-only hours. Clorox wipes, hand sanitizer and toilet paper were sold out for weeks.

May 1: 35,463 cases/ 1,388 deaths -- As April ended, DeSantis began easing the state’s lockdown, allowing restaurants to offer onsite dining at 50% capacity and other businesses to reopen. On May 2, the governor announced: “The only thing we have to fear is letting fear overwhelm our sense of purpose and determination.” By the end of the month, Florida’s unemployment rate had doubled to 13.7%.

June 1: 57,447 cases/2,613 deaths -- On June 5, DeSantis announced the second phase of reopening, including allowing bars to reopen at 50% capacity. While Florida is one of the few states that never required residents to wear masks, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry instituted a mask mandate in June -- a rule that has been extended every 30 days ever since.

July 1: 169,106 case/3,718 deaths -- Between Memorial Day, bars reopening and summer vacations, Florida’s summer surge was well underway and school officials began considering the impact on coronavirus their fall semesters. Duval, St. Johns, Clay and other counties began pushing back start dates and weighing whether it was safe to reopen classrooms at all.

Aug. 1: 487,182 cases/7,206 deaths -- Florida’s summer coronavirus peak continues, with cases nearly tripling for the second straight month and deaths nearly doubling. After spending millions of dollars installing plexiglass around desks in classrooms and other safety improvements, most school districts in Florida reopened in some form -- with millions still attending either part-time or full time via a computer.

Sept. 1: 633,442 cases/11,651 deaths -- Summer ending, caseload growth dropped slightly and DeSantis began to relax visitation restrictions on senior-living facilities and nursing homes.

Oct. 1: 711,804 cases/14,730 deaths -- Florida’s caseload continues to drop -- averaging under 3,000 per day -- with test positivity rates below 5% and statewide hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients just above 2,000 most of the month.

Nov. 1: 812,063 cases/17,043 deaths -- Like everything else, coronavirus changed how America voted. It didn’t dampen turnout -- a record 11 million ballots were cast in Florida’s general election -- but for the first time ever, more ballots were cast by mail than during early voting or on election day.

Dec. 1: 1,018,160 cases/19,012 deaths -- The first two vaccines received emergency-use authorization, shipped and began going into the arms of health care workers. The first shots in Florida were administered Dec. 14 at UF Health in Jacksonville. Just in time, most would say, as the holiday-season surge was underway and hospitals began filling up with COVID-19 patients.

Jan. 1: 1,354,833 cases/22,210 deaths -- Instead of a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, there was a memorial at Arlington National Cemetery as Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States. Instead of hundreds of thousands congregating on the Capitol grounds and on the National Mall, there were thousands of National Guard members.

Feb. 1: 1,737,640 cases/27,269 deaths -- Florida’s second peak began to ease -- although as daily case increases remain higher than they were through most of the fall and reports of additional deaths remained in the triple digits most days. But there was a growing sense of optimism as the number of Floridians vaccinated surpassed those infected with coronavirus over the past year.

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Where COVID-19 hit hardest

The virus originated overseas, so it was no surprise that those who had traveled internationally or had contact with them felt the effects first. Florida’s initial hotspot was Port Everglades, the state’s largest cruise port, where five of the state’s first 14 cases were traced.

Next came urban areas, where people are in closer proximity and are more likely to come in contact with the well-traveled. For the first few months of the spread in Florida, Broward and Miami-Dade counties led the state with the most cases.

Despite DeSantis’ visitation ban, the virus soon made it into senior-living communities and nursing homes, where it spread quickly among people of compromised health in close quarters. Over the last year, 80,000 residents and staff have tested positive for the virus and at least 10,600 have died -- nearly half of the total virus deaths in the state.

Jails and prisons were also breeding grounds for the virus. According to the Department of Corrections, nearly 18,000 inmates and more than 5,500 staff contracted COVID-19. At least 208 inmates have died of the virus in the past year.

The high number of cases in prisons located in areas with relatively low populations skewed county-by-county comparisons we presented on News4Jax each day for the last 11 months. One in every nine people in Baker, Columbia and Union counties have tested positive for coronavirus, based on analysis of Florida Department of Health data.

The rate of infection was one of every 11 people in Jacksonville and one out of 13 people in Clay, Putnam and St. Johns counties,

The virus touched us all

While fewer than 10% of Floridians got sick with the virus over the last year, millions more lost jobs -- at least initially. Virtually all of us who kept jobs were changed in some way -- either working from home, behind plexiglass or with face coverings. And sanitation of our workspaces became everyone’s responsibility.

Even our kids’ lives were upended -- attending school on a laptop or tablet last spring and, for some, again in the fall. Youth sports and other after-school activities halted suddenly last year and restarted cautiously a few month later.

Weddings were postponed, vacations were canceled as we hunkered down at homes with our families.

Vaccine to the rescue?

On Monday morning, Dec. 14, 10 staff members of UF Health Jacksonville were given the first Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines administered in the state. Over the next 10 weeks, 3 million Floridians received at least one shot. That’s 21% of the residents of the state and 67% of those 65 years old and above.

Florida has been lauded for its rollout of vaccines to senior citizens but criticized for its break with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to prioritize teachers and front-line essential workers. Teachers age 50 and above and law enforcement officers are to be eligible to get vaccines at the FEMA-run site to open Wednesday at Gateway Mall.

The pent-up demand for the vaccine did lead to frustration for those trying to get a shot. Duval County Health Department phone lines crashed when the first appointments were to open Jan. 4. St. Johns County began with an online system, but when it crashed, its health department began vaccinating seniors on a first-come, first-served basis -- leading to senior citizens sleeping overnight in cars backed up onto U.S. 1.

Within the first week, most issues at public sites -- other than lack of supply -- were resolved.

As January progressed, Florida directed part of its vaccine supply to Publix stores. Shots at Publix pharmacies began in Central Florida first, expanded to St. Johns and Flagler counties, then Nassau County. By late February, Publix was offering the vaccine statewide.

Jacksonville didn’t just wait on the state and Publix to get more vaccines to its residents at the state-run site at the Prime Osborn Convention Center, then at Regency Square. The city turned COVID-19 testing centers at two senior centers into vaccination centers -- until the supplies ran out.

The second week of February, a federal partnership with pharmacies reached Walmart, Sam’s Club, Winn-Dixie and Harvey’s stories across Northeast Florida. There were more hiccups with rollouts and frustration with appointments gone while people were still in the queue, but millions did get vaccinated.

Responding to criticism that vaccines were not available in underserved communities, there have been distributions on select days at churches and community centers Northwest Jacksonville and elsewhere. And the FEMA site at Gateway and two connected mobile units will soon be offering 3,000 vaccinations per day.

With Johnson & Johnson vaccine receiving emergency authorization over the weekend and supplies of Moderna and Pfizer increasing, availability should rapidly increase. In Jacksonville last week, DeSantis said there should be enough vaccine to lower the age requirement sometime in March.

By April, vaccines are “not going to be very difficult for people to be able to get,” DeSantis said. “I think the supply is going to be very robust.”

On 363th day after the first coronavirus cases in Florida, DeSantis quietly released an executive order allowing people under age 65 who have prior conditions that put them at risk to the coronavirus can receive vaccines.

One year ago today – Governor Ron DeSantis announced the first two cases of the coronavirus in Florida. Here in Duval County – we've counted nearly 89-thousand cases cases, and close to 12-hundred deaths… with more than 123-thousand people getting at least one vaccine dose - and 76-thousand fully vaccinated. But those who have been sickened by COVID-19… or lost their lives to the virus… are more than just a number… they leave behind families still mourning their deaths.

About the Author:

Digital election producer in 2022. He created in 1995 and managed The Local Station's website through 2021.