JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – For the fourth straight day, the Florida Department of Health reported a record number of COVID-19 related deaths in Florida.
In Friday’s updated state data, another 257 deaths were added, bringing the state’s total to 6,966 deaths of residents and visitors since the pandemic began.
Most of the deaths included in each day’s FDOH report have not actually died in the past 24 hours, but tracking from one day’s update to the next, Florida is seeing an unsettling spike in deaths related to the virus.
Of that total, over 13% have been reported by the health department in the last four days: 191 on Tuesday, 217 on Wednesday, 252 on Thursday and 257 on Friday.
The highest number of daily deaths reported in the U.S. during the pandemic has been 760, in New York at the height of its outbreak in mid-April.
“For those who might not think COVID-19 is a big deal, we’ve now lost 150,000 people to this virus in the United States,” said Chad Neilsen, director of Infection Prevention and Control for UF Health Jacksonville. “And this is not a time of year that we’re used to seeing this. We’re not quite to flu season yet, which we do typically see a rise in respiratory viral deaths.”
Neilsen said the deaths seem to be coming on the back end of the state’s earlier spike.
″Back in the early end of this, Duval was having days without deaths, so when we had maybe one death, we were looking at a couple of hundred cases or so and a percent positivity of 3 to 4%,” Neilsen said. “I think when we get down to 3 or 4% positivity on a day-to-day average, we may not see any deaths, and I think as that percent positivity continues to decrease like it is now, I think over the next two weeks, you’ll start to see those deaths start to fall.”
Five of the deaths reported in Friday’s update were in Northeast Florida: two in St. Johns County and one each in Duval, Clay and Alachua counites.
The youngest Northeast Florida death was a 50-year-old man in Alachua County. The oldest was a 93-year-old man in St. Johns County.
Duval County has now reported 153 deaths, Clay has reported 48, St. Johns 26 and Alachua 21.
The health department also confirmed 9,007 new cases of coronavirus in Florida, pushing the state to 470,386 confirmed cases since the beginning of the pandemic.
Duval County added 222 cases in Friday’s report, and the rate of positive tests that came back Thursday was 6.0% in Jacksonville while the state’s positivity rate ticked down to 10.57%.
An additional 78 cases were added Friday in Alachua County, which had a positivity rate of 6.3% on Thursday.
Neilsen said it’s likely the recent spike in Florida was related to the Fourth of July holiday and with no holidays coming up soon, the state could get a respite -- but a hurricane potentially impacting parts of the state’s coast could cause problems.
Hurricane Isaias, projected to head north along the state’s east coast over the weekend, prompted emergency officials to close state-run COVID-19 testing sites late Thursday and through the weekend as a precaution.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry in a Thursday news conference reminded area residents to get prepared now for the storm and not to drop good social distancing habits while they’re shopping for supplies.
“Most of the stores that I’ve been in -- retail stores, grocery stores, etc. -- have markings on their floors and their lines that demonstrate the 6 feet of distance. If you’re in a store that doesn’t have that, be mindful,” Curry said. “Wear your mask, do not crowd and jam (together) as you’re getting your supply kits.”
Curry also stressed that Hurricane Isaias isn’t a reason to panic.
“We don’t know how this tropical storm will develop. We’re not under an immediate threat that people should be panicking or rushing around, but this is a good reminder, during a pandemic, to prepare, to get your kit ready,” Curry said. “People just need to remember when they’re in stores, COVID-19 is with us. Keep your distance, wear your mask and be thoughtful of other folks.”
He also asked stores selling supply kits to make sure their floors are marked for social distancing.
Daily COVID-19 cases reported in Florida, Jacksonville
The number of patients treated for COVID-19 in Florida hospitals continued to decline Thursday, with 8,425 logged in the state’s online census in the late morning — down about 300 from the previous day and down more than 1,000 from peak levels last week.
Even with hospitalization trends improving, schools in South Florida and the Florida Keys have already announced they would start their school year fully online in late August.
Gov. Ron DeSantis continued to advocate for schools to teach in person this fall, saying children will be affected with the online models.
“With this distance learning, how many kids will just totally fall off the map after doing this for months, and months and months? Remember, we started this with 15 days to slow the spread,” DeSantis said Thursday. “It was never supposed to be just keep society in the fetal position indefinitely.”
Officials have avoided reinstating widespread closures and safer-at-home orders, but the economy continues to be affected.
The toll on Florida’s theme park industry was reflected Thursday in second quarter earnings from Comcast, which owns Universal Orlando. The company’s theme parks division shrank to $87 million in revenue from $1.46 billion a year ago.
But the reopening of Disney World, one of the state’s largest employers with a 77,000-person workforce, probably helped bring down the number of jobless claims in Florida. About 87,000 people applied last week compared with almost 109,000 claims the previous week.
However, less than half of the 43,000 unionized workers at the resort were called back to work when the theme parks reopened earlier this month after closing in March.
The head of a congressional coronavirus oversight panel sent letters to DeSantis and three other Republican governors Wednesday requesting documents to show how their states are fighting the pandemic.
According to the letter, Florida is not following three recommendations outlined in a White House coronavirus task force report by allowing gyms to remain open even in worst-hit Miami and Tampa, permitting a larger capacity for indoor dining and not limiting social gatherings. The report hasn't been made public.
The request by South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, a Democrat, comes days after White House coronavirus task force leader Dr. Deborah Birx implored leaders to close bars and for residents to wear masks.
The letter also says Florida is only partially complying to other guidelines by not mandating masks in all counties with rising test positivity, singling out Polk County as one that is currently not requiring the use of facial coverings. DeSantis has refused to issue a statewide mask mandate.
On Thursday, DeSantis spoke to reporters after watching the launch of the Mars rover in Meritt Island and was asked about large crowds gathering to watch the liftoff, many of whom were not wearing masks.
“Our guidelines have been that physical distancing is important, closed sustained contact is what is the best mechanism for transmitting the virus,” DeSantis said before lifting up a mask. “If you can’t maintain the physical distance, wearing the mask, this may be able to stop some of the droplets. It doesn’t stop them all.”
Another recommendation the state may be only partially follow, according to the letter by the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform subcommittee, is Florida’s order to close bars in late June. The measure allows restaurants that make more money selling food to operate bar-top seating, and it has drawn crowds to establishments such as sports bars.
Counties such as worst-hit Miami-Dade have implemented curfews to discourage social gatherings in such establishments. Neighboring Broward County, home to Fort Lauderdale, has also ordered a curfew. And in the Florida Keys, two residents were jailed for failing to quarantine after testing positive for the new coronavirus.
Associated Press reporters contributed to this story.