WASHINGTON — With Florida adding coronavirus infections at the rate of about 10,000 per day, Miami has emerged as one of the most significant coronavirus hot spots in the United States, according to an internal Trump administration document reviewed by Yahoo News.
Many of Florida’s new infections have been in three South Florida counties: Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. A document circulated throughout the federal government by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday, based on data from the previous two weeks, lists Miami-Dade as an “area of concern.”
The federal government has no formal “hot spot” designation, but other areas that have drawn concern from public health authorities include Houston and Los Angeles.
Miami-Dade, which includes Miami and its suburbs, is by far the biggest metropolitan area in Florida, with 2.7 million residents. Miami itself is the state’s second-largest city after Jacksonville, which is set to host the Republican National Convention next month. Some have questioned the wisdom of holding a large gathering in a state where the pandemic has been raging out of control.
President Trump, who last year switched his primary residence from his New York City penthouse to his Palm Beach golf resort, will be visiting South Florida on Friday. His arrival there, for fundraising and other events, will be shadowed by a warning from Dr. Anthony Fauci of the White House coronavirus task force that Florida had “jumped over a couple of checkpoints” in reopening.
A significant outbreak in Miami-Dade, a tourist destination with a large Spanish-speaking population, could harm Trump’s chances in Florida, a must-win state for him in November’s presidential election. It would also intensify scrutiny of Gov. Ron DeSantis, an ambitious young Republican who has aligned himself closely with Trump. His handling of the pandemic has been criticized as erratic and inattentive.
Concerns about Miami-Dade appear in a July 9 document compiled by the CDC and distributed to other agencies in the federal government involved in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed 135,000 Americans since February. The 33-page document includes detailed charts on case counts, testing results and even the spread of malicious rumors related to the disease.
Miami-Dade is one of 10 counties described as an “area of concern,” a designation that according to the CDC means the “county’s disease burden is high and still growing.” It is by far the most populous county on the list, which also includes — in descending order of incidence per 100,000 people over the last two weeks — Yell County, Ark.; Mineral County, Colo.; Thurston County, Neb.; Santa Cruz County, Ariz.; Victoria County, Texas; Nueces County, Texas; Chicot County, Ark.; Galax City, Va., which is its own county; and Franklin County, Wash.
Seventh on the list in incidence rate, Miami-Dade has by far the most new cases, with 24,236 in the two weeks prior to July 9. The other nine areas of concern have about 6,000 cases combined.
Neither the CDC nor Miami city officials returned requests for comment from Yahoo News.
Renata Bresciani, 31, a Miami actress and fashion blogger, told Yahoo News she contracted COVID-19 about a month ago, shortly after the lockdown was lifted, even though she and her husband were careful about the risks. “We were seeing people on Instagram out at restaurants, out at parties, definitely not social distancing, and we didn’t feel comfortable about it. So we didn’t do anything. We still didn’t see anybody.”
Bresciani limited her time outside to visiting her family, but she and her husband both tested positive. “My husband started showing symptoms, so he got tested. They found him positive so we got tested, and it turns out we were all positive,” she said.
Bresciani believes her husband must have caught it first, when returning to work, even though she says his workplace had implemented all the health measures necessary to keep the virus from spreading.
Martha Baker, a registered nurse, is president of SEIU Local 1991, a health care union representing more than 5,000 employees from Jackson Health, which is Miami-Dade’s largest hospital system. She told Yahoo News she believes COVID-19 spread because restrictions were loosened too early.
“Unfortunately, health care and politics are so related, and one of our trauma attending [physicians] said it well yesterday. He said, ‘You know, we’re not in the second phase of COVID. We’re experiencing the results of prematurely letting up in the first phase.’ And that was a political decision, right? Caregivers weren’t consulted. ... This is our Gov. DeSantis saying everything’s going fine in Florida, and letting things up for the sake of the economy. ... We’re suffering the consequences of politicians making decisions that are affecting patients and our community’s health.”
Because of irregularities in how states report and how federal authorities collect statistics, there could be disagreements about what constitutes a hot spot or area of concern. The case count for Miami-Dade provided by the CDC could not be checked against Florida’s own statistics because the relevant chart on the state’s database would not properly update to reflect county breakdowns.
The data scientist who created that database, Rebekah Jones, was fired in May, by her account because she refused to alter statistics to more favorably reflect DeSantis’s response. DeSantis tried to downplay Jones’s role in creating the database, but since her departure, the website has become less informative and more difficult for outsiders to navigate.
Jones has since created her own database; when it was visited by Yahoo News, Miami-Dade was shown to have recorded about 27,400 new cases during the period covered by the CDC’s “area of concern” designation.
Asked by Yahoo News to assess her official Florida dashboard, Jones answered bluntly. “They don’t know what they’re doing,” she wrote in a text message. “That’s what’s going on.”
In a blog post for the site, Jones accuses DeSantis of hiding the full scope of the pandemic. That accusation is supported by news reports that the state told coroners to stop reporting coronavirus deaths. State officials have also been accused of concealing hospitalization records.
“Florida never followed CDC guidance on reporting the number of probable cases and deaths, or the number of recovered persons, making Florida’s past, present and future state of coronavirus impossible to analyze,” Jones wrote in her blog post.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has been warning for weeks about the danger the coronavirus posed to his city, even as DeSantis pushed to reopen the state, declaring victory over COVID-19 almost before the coronavirus had even arrived in the Sunshine State.
Though a Republican, like DeSantis, Suarez is not seen as a close ally of the governor. The mayor recently said he may not vote for Trump, whose endorsement in late 2017 lifted DeSantis, then a congressman in his third term, out of obscurity and helped make him governor. In June, as Trump considered a site in Florida to replace Charlotte, N.C., as the host city for the Republican National Convention after a disagreement over social distancing procedures with North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, DeSantis turned to Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, not Suarez of Miami.
Suarez must now deal with a growing coronavirus problem as the hurricane season approaches. The county, meanwhile, has required that masks be worn in gyms, closed some other businesses and reimposed a ban on indoor restaurant dining. That effectively reverses DeSantis’s victorious May reopening of the state.
Additional reporting by Jana Winter.
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