The number of new COVID-19 cases has gone up in Florida in the past week, with the state and Tampa Bay area reporting some of their highest figures since the pandemic began. This comes a month after the state began reopening for business and recreation.
But data on new cases alone doesn't paint a complete picture about coronavirus in Florida.
Health News Florida's Stephanie Colombini spoke with Dr. Marissa Levine, a professor in the University of South Florida's College of Public Health, to put things in perspective.
I think a lot of people are looking at the higher case rates and they're saying, “Well, we reopened and now we have a surge in cases.” What else do you have to look at to really understand what's going on here?
I think it's a good question, a lot of people are wondering what it means. And I hear a lot of folks saying that we're testing more, which we are. A lot of people take comfort knowing that the percentage of tests that are positive, which is hovering around five percent, hasn't changed a lot. Meaning that we don't think that there's this rapid increase in cases, that what we're seeing is more related to just doing more testing.
But the issue is, what it's also telling us is that COVID is still in our community. And it wouldn't take much for it to rapidly increase, especially if people let their guards down completely.
We suspect that there's a group of folks who are pretty actively maintaining their distance, using face coverings, etc., and then there's another group who has kind of assumed, “Hey, we're open again, we can go back to the old normal.” And the more people who do the second, the more likely we're going to have a rapid increase. And it could get to the point where it's so rapid, we can't recover from that. And we'll have a big second wave of disease.
The “second wave” has definitely become a buzzword you hear people throwing out a lot, also “flattening the curve.” What do public health experts actually mean when they're talking about those terms?
Initially, flattening the curve was really about not overwhelming our healthcare system. And we only seemed to have one option at that point, which was to stay at home, because we didn't have really anything else and we didn't know effective additional approaches.
Now we have another flattening of the curve need. Because we still don't want the healthcare facilities to get overwhelmed. We don't want vulnerable people to end up in hospitals to die needlessly.
So flattening the curve means now, since we're opened, you don't necessarily have to stay at home unless you're at really high risk and you can't protect yourself. But if you do go out, you should physical distance, you should wear an effective cloth face covering, particularly when you can't maintain your distance, and you should continue your hand hygiene and other hygienic practices.
The second wave would mean that the ability to spread disease has gone back to where we were originally, that one person is likely to spread it to more than two or three others. We would then see this, what's called an exponential increase. And it's really hard to stop that.
So is the number of new people getting hospitalized from COVID-19 sort of the most important thing we need to be looking at moving forward?
It is, but it's also delayed. So the first thing we see are increased cases and then some 10 to 14 days later, we might see the hospitalizations. So you know, it's not been that long since we reopened. It's not been that long since Memorial Day. Now we've got protests with more people out. All of the critical metrics are going to come later, like hospitalizations and deaths.
So I think we need to be really careful interpreting the numbers now and saying we're out of the woods, because I think it's too early to say that. And I really want to push the fact that this is the most important time for us to physically distance and use cloth face coverings and continue our hygienic practices. We do not have a treatment, we do not have a vaccine and the virus is still in our communities.
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