Despite record hospitalizations, Florida isn’t under a state of emergency as the highly transmissible delta variant sends cases soaring, frustrating one Central Florida emergency manager’s response and tying the hands of other local leaders confronting the new pandemic challenge.
Gov. Ron DeSantis declined to reinstate Florida’s emergency declaration, even as the number of people needing to be hospitalized for the virus exceeded previous peaks, and he’s also curtailed the ability of local leaders to craft their own responses.
The widespread availability of vaccines and new antibody treatments mean that an emergency declaration isn’t needed, DeSantis has said. He’s dismissed the latest spike as a “seasonal” fluctuation and called hospital capacity concerns “media hysteria.”
Reinstating the state’s emergency declaration would help local officials blunt the most recent spike of COVID-19 cases, said Alan Harris, Seminole County’s emergency manager.
“The health care system is really hurting,” Harris said. “It’s like a Category 4 hurricane bearing down on us, and we are really not taking any protective measures as a state.”
An emergency declaration would allow the state to waive its normal purchasing rules, which would speed up assistance for testing and vaccine sites, as well as make it easier for the state to contract with additional delivery drivers to supply hospitals with medical oxygen, Harris said.
The Department of Health had a team of contractors who wanted to set up a testing site in Seminole County, but it was going to take weeks to go through the state’s normal purchasing process, he said.
Ultimately, Seminole County was able to make faster arrangements for the sites through workarounds in its code, Harris said. Two testing sites — one in Sanford and the other in Altamonte Springs — are expected to open this week.
A state of emergency would also empower state leaders to waive regulations that stand in the way of a faster response, providing more flexibility for telehealth services and out-of-state medical workers coming to Florida to help.
DeSantis needs to provide more discretion to local officials who are trying to do what’s best for the communities they represent, Broward County Mayor Steve Geller said.
In May, DeSantis suspended all local COVID-19 emergency orders and signed a bill into law that gave him the authority to overrule future emergency orders issued by cities and counties.
Geller said the county would be interested in doing a limited mask mandate for two to four weeks if it had that flexibility.
“What works in Bradford County, population 28,000, might not work in Broward County, population approximately 2 million,” he said. “At a minimum, let us do what we want in Broward. Nobody is talking about shutting anything down. There has been no discussion whatsoever about shutting the economy.”
Emergency activation ended
For months, representatives of key Florida agencies gathered at the emergency operations center in Tallahassee to coordinate the state’s response to the pandemic. The Florida Division of Emergency Management led the effort, along with the Florida Department of Health.
That all ended on June 26 when DeSantis allowed the state’s COVID-19 emergency declaration to expire. At that time, cases had leveled off, and it appeared the worst of the pandemic had passed.
The 476-day activation of the emergency operations center for COVID-19 was the longest in the state’s history, said Samantha Bequer, a spokesperson for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
But the highly transmissible delta variant sent cases soaring after the Fourth of July holiday. Florida is now leading the nation in COVID-19 hospitalizations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent report. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports 15,840 hospitalizations in Florida as of Friday.
Unlike earlier in the pandemic, Florida has adequate COVID-19 supplies and vaccines, and the decision was made to transfer the pandemic response to the Department of Health, Bequer said.
“Once those resources were readily available and no longer in high demand, we fully transitioned all of the operations over to DOH (Department of Health),” she said. “It has become a core function of public health surveillance.”
The emergency activation ended with a large number of eligible Floridians still unvaccinated. As of Friday, about 43% of Floridians 12 years and older are not fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
Although the Department of Health is in charge of the pandemic response, its leader, state surgeon general Dr. Scott Rivkees, has been notably absent from DeSantis’ public appearances. A Health Department spokesperson did not respond to questions about the agency’s response.
Meanwhile, the Florida Hospital Association is sounding the alarm about looming problems, reporting that nearly 67% of hospitals it surveyed are expecting critical staffing shortages within the next week.
In a statement, Mary Mayhew, the hospital group’s president and CEO, said, “It is indescribable the level of stress and strain our brave frontline health care heroes have been under for more than 17 months and the heartbreaking losses they have experienced.”
Half of states under emergency orders
Another GOP governor is taking a different approach.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is leaving office because of term limits, reinstated a public health emergency in his state on July 29 in response to the surge in hospitalizations.
“We are in a public health emergency,” he said. “Anytime you are having staffing shortages in the hospital ... that constitutes an emergency and a public health crisis.”
Christina Pushaw, DeSantis’ spokesperson, said Friday, “Gov. DeSantis would only declare a state of emergency if doing so could help Floridians in a concrete way that could not otherwise be accomplished.”
DeSantis — viewed as a possible GOP presidential contender in 2024 — has focused much of his messaging lately on promoting monoclonal antibody treatments, which have been shown to reduce the chances of hospitalization if COVID patients receive them early in their infection.
DeSantis is launching mobile rapid response teams to offer the treatment. He’s also highlighted that more than 80% of the 65-and-up population is fully vaccinated, which protects the highest-risk age group.
Still, Democrats are continuing to call on DeSantis to declare an emergency. State Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, wrote a letter to DeSantis in late July asking him to reinstate the public health emergency that went unanswered. She said this week she thinks DeSantis’ presidential ambitions are clouding his judgment.
“There is no other explanation than it is political, and you cannot play politics with people’s lives,” said Taddeo, who has been mentioned as a possible Democratic contender for governor next year.
A national emergency declaration for the COVID-19 pandemic — issued by former President Donald Trump — has been in place since March 13, 2020.
Only six of Florida’s 67 counties were under a local state of emergency for COVID-19 as of Aug. 6, according to the latest report from the Florida Association of Counties. Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings reinstated a public health emergency on July 28.
Alachua, Clay, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Martin counties are also under local states of emergency.
Seminole County doesn’t have a local emergency declaration, but Harris, the emergency manager, said he thinks the county’s code affords the flexibility needed to respond to the COVID surge.
About half of U.S. states have COVID-19 emergency orders in place, according to the website Ballotpedia, which has been tracking the measures. That list includes some states where COVID transmission is far lower and vaccination rates are higher than Florida, such as California and Connecticut.
State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said the absence of a statewide emergency declaration has other effects, such as reducing the maximum amount of food stamp assistance Floridians are able to receive.
The public shouldn’t conflate an emergency declaration with orders issued earlier in the pandemic that closed businesses, Harris said.
“A state of emergency does not mean a lockdown,” he said.
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