Inside the Florida model: How 'God's waiting room' could point the way to managing coronavirus
Elderly woman sitting in the shade on a Florida beach - Getty
On Monday, Florida hit a grim milestone of 100,000 confirmed coronavirus cases after a series of daily records.
But the headline is far from the whole story. On the same day, there were only 12 deaths and 82 people hospitalized in a state with 22 million people that has so many older retirees that it is known as "God's Waiting Room".
Florida's mortality rate - the percentage of deaths per positive case - has dropped to just 3.4 percent. This corresponds to 5.2 percent in the USA and worldwide. The rate in the UK is 14 percent.
Most striking is that the average age of those who tested positive dropped from 65 in March to 35 now. In some counties in Florida, it is under 30.
The numbers reflect the Sunshine State's strategy of protecting older people while enabling young and healthy people to continue living as much as possible.
It is an approach that is not dissimilar to what was originally proposed in the UK and in addition to the focus on older people that has happened in Sweden. In the future, it could provide a model of how the virus can best be managed.
If there was a catastrophe anywhere when the corona virus appeared, it was Florida. The state has 691 nursing homes with around 85,000 beds and over 3,000 assisted living facilities with 106,000 beds.
And it houses numerous resorts for the elderly, including the "mega-age community" The Villages, the largest in America with over 130,000 seniors and an average age of 70.
From the outset, Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, took a simple approach: protect the elderly and let others go because they are less likely to get seriously ill and contribute more to the economy.
The result was many cases, but fewer deaths and less pressure on the state health system.
DeSantis - Shutterstock
No special measures have been introduced for older people. But over 65s have been repeatedly asked to stay at home and avoid crowds. Ultimately, it was everyone's decision, but they listened.
When the first case was confirmed at The Villages on March 19, the public events had already stopped there and the restaurants had switched to takeaway. The churches immediately performed services only online or only through the city.
Days later, Mr. DeSantis revealed in The Villages what he called "the most innovative testing facility in the country". It was a transit center that tested everyone regardless of symptoms and delivered results within 72 hours. The tests took a month. Scientists welcomed it as a global example.
In the end, fewer than 100 cases were discovered, despite predictions that the virus would destroy The Villages.
In the meantime, Florida is nearing completion of all tests in all nursing homes. All nurses are tested every two weeks. The governor ordered the National Guard to help with the tests.
"The impression [from Mr. DeSantis] was to protect vulnerable people [the elderly] while trying to maintain the Florida economy," Professor Cindy Prins, epidemiologist at the University of Central Florida, told The Telegraph.
"We have many large age groups, but overall Florida has not reached the point that the models had predicted. Our older people have recognized the need to protect themselves."
"The shift in cases is partly due to the fact that they continue these practices and younger people do not."
Experts like Professor Prins are still concerned about the recent surge.
"The preference is not to have as many cases. This is not a desirable situation. If we look at recent cases, they will surely not be hospitalized as often and they are not as likely to die," she said. "But the 25-year-old can still visit grandma and grandpa."
Mr. DeSantis was very reluctant to issue a nationwide home stay order, finally in April, and then started reopening as soon as possible in early May.
Restaurants and bars are now 50% or 100% outdoors. He didn't prescribe masks.
Floridians have flocked to the beaches since May 25th. Public health officials have been confused by images of sunbathers avoiding social distancing.
Beachgoers bask in Miami Beach, Florida on June 16, 2020 - AFP
However, the governor is pleased to see how the average age for positive cases "has shifted radically younger".
Last week in Miami, he said, "A trend that is very important is the average age of those who test positive. Especially those under 40 who have no underlying conditions are much, much less likely to be hospitalized become or die. We don't roll back. "
The figures appear to support Mr. DeSantis' approach.
Florida has the third highest population of all US states, including a very high proportion of vulnerable older people, but has the ninth highest number of deaths, at 3,173.
That equates to 147 deaths per million people, well below the US average of 368 per million. There are 641 deaths per million in Great Britain and 1,602 in New York.
Florida is also aggressively testing with 41,028 tests done on Saturday. On that day, the percentage of positive tests was 14 percent, compared to less than six percent in the previous months. It reflects the contact tracking efforts that aim to get people treated quickly.
In the meantime, doctors have reported that the age of patients is decreasing, which reduces the pressure on them. In Broward County, hospital admissions have decreased from an average of 10 days to six days.
At the beginning of the pandemic, elderly patients from nursing homes and cruise ships needed long stays. Now the vast majority of younger patients are not admitted and sent home for recovery.
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