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Supporters of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are still waiting for his apology. They might want to focus on the epidemiology.
Weeks after Florida endured one of the worst outbreaks of the coronavirus pandemic, the state has seen cases decline substantially - so much so that it currently ranks 50th in the country in per-capita cases.
This has prompted another round of I-told-you-sos about the supposed wisdom of the Republican governor's approach. A Wall Street Journal op-ed this week declared, "Media Ignore Florida Covid Recovery." Fox News analyst Brit Hume suggested that mainstream journalists were ignoring Florida's righting of the ship because it didn't fit the narrative.
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The whole thing is reminiscent of the first time all this happened. Early in the pandemic, with Florida still yet to be hard-hit, a May 2020 National Review headline read, "Where Does Ron DeSantis Go to Get His Apology?" Within a couple weeks of that headline, cases in Florida began surging. Less than two months later, Florida registered the most per-capita current cases of any state.
In March of this year, with Florida's cases again dropping to a lower plateau, a Wall Street Journal op-ed declared, "Vindication for Ron DeSantis." By the summer, Florida again surged to the highest per-capita case rate and added the highest per-capita death rate during the delta wave.
Now DeSantis himself is joining some of the voices above in suggesting his state's current 50th-out-of-50 status is vindication.
The point of referencing Florida's spikes is not that its handling of the coronavirus has been the worst. The point is that these things are cyclical, and spiking the football when cases are low - even the lowest - is a ridiculous enterprise. That is especially true when Florida is just coming off one of the worst outbreaks in the history of the pandemic and has more often than not been worse off than the rest of the country.
But even as many have pointed out the oversimplicity and excessive convenience of this argument, it's worth emphasizing that Florida's boom-to-bust cycle is very familiar. Indeed, many of the biggest spikes in states have been followed by some of the biggest drops - often placing those same previously hard-hit states at or near the bottom of the heap, where Florida currently resides.
- North Dakota had the worst spike in November 2020 but by February had the lowest rate.
- Michigan had the worst outbreak this spring. By July, it was effectively tied for the lowest case rate in the country.
- New Jersey had the highest case rate in early spring, but it had about the lowest rate for a time in mid-May.
- Arizona had the highest spike in January. By late March, it was registering almost at the bottom.
- When Florida was peaking this summer, Louisiana was often neck-and-neck with it and usually slightly worse off. It has since been competing with Florida and some others for the bottom spot (currently ranking 46th).
- South Carolina had the highest case rate in late winter but was clustered at the bottom by the start of summer.
There have also been bust-to-boom cycles. Arkansas had the lowest case rate in the country for much of April, for instance, but by July it was the earliest to truly spike during the delta-variant wave.
Any of these states' governors could have claimed vindication at those low points. But the evidence suggests this is, at least in part, the natural course of things. Specific policies might help, but the mere fact of going from No. 1 to No. 50 doesn't mean you tamed the beast.
Each of these states' overall experiences with the virus has been different. Most rank toward the higher end of total cases and deaths, thanks to having some of the highest spikes.
Florida currently ranks 10th-highest in per-capita cases over the course of the pandemic and ninth-highest in deaths. But even that can be misleading. There has been some seasonality involved in this, after all, with southern states hit hard over the summer and northern states currently the worst off. That means that with some states rising and Florida ebbing, it will probably drop on that overall list in the coming weeks. Isolating these numbers right after a big spike for one state or another generally means they'll look worse.
If there's anything that sets Florida apart, it's the frequency and size of its spikes. Florida's case numbers peaked the highest in the country in the summer of 2020 and then again in the summer of 2021. Few other states managed to hit No. 1 during separate waves, with exceptions such as Arizona and New Jersey. (The latter notably suffered very early in the pandemic but also peaked significantly lower in its case numbers.)
That's in large part because many more-vaccinated states have been better equipped to handle the latest wave. If you look at the hardest-hit states right now, in fact, they do tend to be northern ones - but not the northern ones with higher vaccination rates.
Despite that fact and despite DeSantis's recent experience with his home state, he has greeted it by playing to vaccine-mandate critics and, quite arguably, to vaccine skeptics writ large. That has included elevating vaccine skeptic Joseph Ladapo - who allied with a fringe group of doctors and recently questioned the vaccines' safety and efficacy at a news conference - to Florida's surgeon general.
If anything, doing that would seem to jeopardize future attempts to claim Florida as a coronavirus-combating success story. That said, it's not as if the fuller picture has stopped people before.