Record breaking COVID stats, mask wars and rhetoric to discredit CDC

·9 min read

It’s Monday, Aug. 2 and Florida has earned more gold medals in the Tokyo Olympics than any other state. But our COVID success story has been brutally tarnished as the pandemic has roared back to life with frightening ferocity.

On Saturday, the state reported more new COVID-19 cases to the Centers for Disease Control than any previous day in the coronavirus pandemic: 21,683. On Sunday, the state broke another record with more people hospitalized than at any time yet since the onset of the crisis on July 23 2020.

WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT

Fear and frustration is mounting: Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava mandated masks indoors at all county facilities and urged private employers to do the same. The Key Biscayne mayor on Sunday announced that mask mandate will go into place at all village facilities, both defying a state law that allows the governor or Legislature to invalidate local mask mandates and curfews.

Companies mandating masks: As the governor and state legislature discourage mask mandates, several companies are taking the opposite tack. Publix announced it is again requiring all employees — regardless of vaccination status — to wear face coverings while inside any of its 1,273 stores. Several Miami restaurants are requiring employees to be vaccinated. And Florida’s mega tourist meccas — Universal Orlando, Disney World and Kennedy Space Center — started requiring guests to wear face masks indoors again.

Right to infect: Gov. Ron DeSantis’ reflexive reaction has been consistent: use government to protect the rights of people to infect others, but not the rights of Floridians to be protected from infection.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, center, bids iPrep Academy pre-k students a wonderful summer as Aillette Rodriguez-Diaz, assistant principal grades Pk-5, gives out hugs to departing students at the end of the school year. iPrep Academy elementary students ended the tumultuous COVID-19 pandemic school year with hugs and goodbyes and a press conference by Superintendent Alberto Carvalho recapping all the challenges of the past school year on Wednesday, June 9, 2021, the last day of school for Miami-Dade students.
Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, center, bids iPrep Academy pre-k students a wonderful summer as Aillette Rodriguez-Diaz, assistant principal grades Pk-5, gives out hugs to departing students at the end of the school year. iPrep Academy elementary students ended the tumultuous COVID-19 pandemic school year with hugs and goodbyes and a press conference by Superintendent Alberto Carvalho recapping all the challenges of the past school year on Wednesday, June 9, 2021, the last day of school for Miami-Dade students.

After the school districts of Broward and Gadsden counties announced they would require kids to wear masks in the fall to prevent them from getting infected with the delta variant at school, the governor signed an executive order Friday prohibiting school districts from imposing mask mandates and leaving it up to parents’ to choose. The order also gave the power to Education Secretary Richard Corcoran to withhold state funds if school districts disobeyed the order.

“We’re in a situation where we need to make sure the parents’ rights are protected,” the governor said. But questions immediately arose about whether the governor had the authority to impose the rule.

Is executive order legal? The governor lifted the state of emergency in June, leaving the constitutional authority to local school boards to “operate, control and supervise all free public schools within the school district.”. The governor contends his legal authority rests in the newly-enacted “parents bill of rights” law. But Ron Meyer, one of Florida’s leading education policy attorneys, argues that the constitution mandates that local school districts keep students safe and he questions the governor’s authority to ban mask mandates.

Meyer argues that the governor is also engaged in situational enforcement of the law. The state bans indoor smoking, for example, because of the effects secondhand smoke on others and the governor isn’t blocking enforcement of that. ““How is this any different?” Meyer asked.

FIU staff members Javier Marquez (second from left), vice president and chief of staff, and Bridget Pelaez (center), FIU assistant director, emergency, load a set of ventilators that Florida International University is lending to the state to treat patients affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, on Wednesday, April 8, 2020.
FIU staff members Javier Marquez (second from left), vice president and chief of staff, and Bridget Pelaez (center), FIU assistant director, emergency, load a set of ventilators that Florida International University is lending to the state to treat patients affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, on Wednesday, April 8, 2020.

Stop for a moment and read this paragraph: “The youngest patient, a 27-year-old woman on a ventilator, had to be resuscitated with a bag valve mask after her blood oxygen saturation levels crashed. The oldest, a 71-year-old man, has been in the ICU for two weeks. He has been in a coma for three days. When he awakens, if he awakens, he will be a widower. The man’s wife, also hospitalized with COVID-19, died two days earlier.”

That is from Dan Chang’s haunting report on a COVID-only intensive care unit at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami where all beds are filled with patients who have not been vaccinated and hospital staff are scrambling to create more space for the rush of patients they know are still coming. Nearly all the patients are under age 50.

Meanwhile, the governor’s staff, whose salaries are paid by taxpayers, on Sunday was tweeting statements like this:

Misfire: From DeSantis’ press secretary Christina Pushaw, referring to Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who has been conducting “daily briefings” to reinforce Florida’s COVID-19 case counts: “Her assertion ‘it’s worse than the worst last year’ is factually incorrect but Florida media activists will ignore that. Narrative > numbers,’’ Pushaw wrote on Twitter. Fried, a Democrat, is challenging DeSantis, a Republican, for governor.

Pushaw’s timing was off. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services had just released the latest data showing that in fact on Sunday the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Florida had exceeded the previous high of July 2020 and a record 10,207 people in Florida were hospitalized with confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Justifying surge as ‘seasonal’: Kyle Lamb, an analyst in DeSantis’ office of planning and budgeting, echoed the governor’s claim that the surge was predicable because it’s “seasonal.” “Yep he has been absolutely steadfast in his position that the virus is seasonal and Florida should anticipate a summer bump in prevalence. That’s been maintained over and over and over,’’ he wrote on Twitter.

What’s not said: What the acolytes and governor don’t say is that unlike last year, this year’s “seasonal” spike is being fueled by the delta variant, which replicates faster than the original virus, is now infecting a startling number of younger patients, many of whom need intensive care and nearly all of whom are not vaccinated, may lead to more severe illness, and is as contagious as chicken pox.

To the doctors and nurses on the front line, the surge in COVID-19 cases after months of promoting a vaccine is more than a “bump.” The data shows that this summer, patients are younger, healthier and sicker. In Tallahassee, home of the state capital, Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare on Sunday reported more than 70 patients in its COVID-19 unit – the highest ever.

1 million unvaccinated elders: The next response from the governor and his staff was: “We have protected the vulnerable by vaccinating the older population.” But according to Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist with the University of South Florida in Tampa, there are nearly 8 million Floridians who are eligible for the vaccine but have not taken it and almost 1 million of them are people 65 and older.

Governor Ron DeSantis address the media during a round table discussion with South Florida Officials and Cuban representatives at American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora in Miami, Florida, on Tuesday, July 13, 2021.
Governor Ron DeSantis address the media during a round table discussion with South Florida Officials and Cuban representatives at American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora in Miami, Florida, on Tuesday, July 13, 2021.

Undermining CDC: On Sunday, the governor was tweeting about his record vaccinating seniors. On Wednesday, he was discrediting the institution that authorizes and oversees the vaccine. “Did you not get the CDC’s memo?” DeSantis joked before an almost entirely unmasked audience of activists and lawmakers at the American Legislative Exchange Council meeting in Salt Lake City. “I don’t see you guys complying.”

He called the CDC’s new guidelines to wear masks indoors in communities with high COVID rates “a Faucian dystopia” and continued: “The CDC is corrupt and wants to enslave us all but also go get the vaccine. They say it’s really safe and effective.’’

Here’s the problem: these are very different perceptions, so which of these arguments does DeSantis want people to believe?

Closed door meeting: Earlier in the week, DeSantis held a closed-door meeting with a collection of scientists who agree with him that masks should not be required in schools. The meeting was remarkable in that it was closed to the public and media and only afterward was a recording made available on Rumble, an alternative social media site that the governor has given exclusive access to in the past.

This is Christina Pushaw’s profile photo from her Twitter account, which she uses to advocate for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
This is Christina Pushaw’s profile photo from her Twitter account, which she uses to advocate for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

So who’s advising the governor with this odd media messaging? We know his wife is his chief advisor and he primarily relies on his own counsel, but he has hired some new staff. Christina Pushaw became DeSantis’ press secretary in May and, since that time has used the job to become one of the loudest pro-DeSantis voices on social media.

WHAT WE’RE WATCHING

Overturning Roe v. Wade: DeSantis last week joined with 10 other Republican governors to sign onto a brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn two of the most important abortion cases in U.S. history. The brief urges the court to reconsider past decisions on the 1973 case Roe v. Wade and the 1992 case Planned Parenthood of Southeast Pennsylvania v. Casey. Roe established the constitutional right to an abortion nationally, and Casey reaffirmed that right while making it easier for states to legally pass some abortion regulations.

Claudy Gassant, a former investigative judge in Haiti charged with finding out who killed Jean Leopold Dominique, a famous journalist and outspoken critic, is dead in the Dominican Republic.
Claudy Gassant, a former investigative judge in Haiti charged with finding out who killed Jean Leopold Dominique, a famous journalist and outspoken critic, is dead in the Dominican Republic.

More frightening Haiti developments: A former top government prosecutor, who was once forced to flee Haiti for Miami in fear for his life, is dead. Claudy Gassant was found dead Saturday in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic where he recently had been living. The discovery came on the same day Gassant was expected to be in South Florida for a conference on Haiti’s widening insecurity. His death was described as suspicious.

How much does it cost to give bonuses to cops, teachers? In Florida it’s $3.6 million. Florida is paying a private contractor $3.6 million to help issue $1,000 bonus checks bearing the governor’s logo to teachers, principals and first responders.

Two state agencies signed contracts with Fidelity Information Services in June to collect information on police officers, firefighters, paramedics, teachers and principals to determine which ones are eligible for the $1,000 bonuses and send them checks.

Frank Artiles leaves the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in Miami, Florida on Thursday, March 18, 2021. Artiles posted $5,000 bail after facing charges relating to a 2020 Senate District 37 campaign.
Frank Artiles leaves the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in Miami, Florida on Thursday, March 18, 2021. Artiles posted $5,000 bail after facing charges relating to a 2020 Senate District 37 campaign.

Artiles had help: Documents released last week show that Frank Artiles didn’t work alone in the clever scheme to coordinate and promote so-called “ghost” candidates in three state Senate races last year. The political committees that paid Artiles more than $125,000 were based out of the Tallahassee headquarters of Associated Industries of Florida, a big-business lobbying group. Artiles also worked with AIF’s GOP pollster, Ryan Tyson.

Records released by prosecutors also show that Artiles helped another no-party candidate, 82-year-old Celso Alfonso, to qualify on the 2020 ballot. Alfonso was recruited by Artiles at a barber shop and ran in Senate District 39, won by Republican Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez.

Stay well and we’d love to hear from you. Miami Herald Capitol Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas curates the Politics and Policy in the Sunshine State newsletter. If you have any ideas or suggestions, please drop me a note at meklas@miamiherald.com.

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