JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – We’d been watching the novel coronavirus, first in China at the beginning of the year, then arriving on our nation’s West Coast a few weeks later. The numbers were growing and the first deaths were reported in America, but President Donald Trump announced Feb. 27: “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
Then came a 29-word tweet on a Sunday night from the Florida Department of Health: two presumptive cases in Florida: a 29-year-old Tampa-area woman who had recently traveled to Italy and a 63-year-old Manatee County man who had contact with someone who tested positive. Those two cases were confirmed as COVID-19 -- the disease sweeping the world -- by the Centers for Disease Control the next day: March 2.
Over the next few days, the state opened a coronavirus hotline, warned against traveling to hot spots for the disease around the world and Gov. Ron DeSantis said the virus represented little risk to Florida.
“Despite these cases, the overall threat to the public remains low," he said.
Few people, especially state and national leaders, believed projections that COVID-19 cases would explode over the next 10 weeks.
On March 5, Florida reported its first deaths from the disease: two people in their 70s who had recently traveled internationally: one in Santa Rosa County and one in Lee County.
The disease first touched the First Coast when a 68-year-old man in Nassau County who had recently visited Germany was diagnosed on March 10. Two days later a tourist from New York who was staying in St. Johns County on his way to Bike Week in Daytona was hospitalized with COVID-19. The next day, an 83-year-old man resident at an adult living facility in Deerwood was the first person diagnosed in Jacksonville. He later died of the disease.
As the virus spread, the government’s response to the pandemic grew. The first suggestions to social distance and frequently wash your hands came quickly and easily. Large gatherings and school field trips were canceled.
On April 1 -- 30 days after those first two cases were confirmed in Florida -- the Department of Health reported 7,773 positive cases in the state. That’s also the day Florida became the 34th state in the nation to institute stay-at-home order.
While only a fraction of Floridians were directly impacted by the disease, the closing of non-essential businesses touched everyone, some in devastating ways.
More than two million people have filed unemployment claims with the state as the jobless rate has jumped from 4.4% in March to 12.9% in May.
The demand at food banks has grown exponentially and businesses have donated supplies to try and help area nonprofits keep up. Gov. DeSantis has now extended the ban on evictions and foreclosures a third time to keep people in their homes, but that has to expire at some point and thousands of people will face difficult choices.
Three months after the first two cases were identified in Florida, the state reported 57,447 residents or people visiting the state have tested positive for the virus, 10,412 people have been hospitalized and 2,530 have died.
Watching those numbers grow as we’ve updated our stories and reported on those who have died and those who have recovered in our community, there have been clear trends. Most have been duly noted in our coverage, but three things become more clear every day:
1) In statistics that DeSantis and others have often cite, sometimes to justify the partial reopening of the economy, the people most likely to be hospitalized and die of this disease are older -- often well beyond their years in the workforce. According to an analysis of both DOH data and medical examiner reports from across the state done by the Tampa Bay Times, 83% of coronavirus deaths are people 65 and older.
2) Clay County doesn’t get the attention because it’s less than one fourth the size of Jacksonville, but it has been hit hard by this virus. Clay’s 377 cases and 30 deaths as of Tuesday may seem low compared to the totals of much larger communities, but that’s 14.5 deaths per 100,000 people in the county. That’s more than twice the percentage as any nearby county and closer to the rate seen in South Florida COVID-19 hot spots like Broward County.
3) While the curve has flattened and, depending on whose criteria you use, Florida has met the target needed to reopen, that does not mean clear sailing ahead. Dozens of Floridians are still dying of this virus most days. Even Jacksonville, with one of the lowest rate of positive tests in the state, adds about 10% more cases each week. If you dig into the infographic above and highlight only the new cases reported per day, you’ll see we have still neared or surpassed 1,000 a few times in the last two weeks.
Please protect yourself, your family and your community as best you can as we try to recover from this pandemic together.