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When it comes to the new coronavirus surge, Florida is an obvious outlier

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 8/9/2021 Philip Bump
a group of people riding skis on a snowy road © Provided by The Washington Post

There is no real mystery undergirding Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) decision not to advocate for measures aimed at containing the spread of the coronavirus in his state. During the first six months of the year, when cases were falling, he made his future ambitions very clear, embracing a variety of right-wing culture-war fights with an obvious eye toward maximizing his position for the 2024 Republican primary. He’d deny this if asked, no doubt, because there are legal obligations that accompany an actual declaration of candidacy and because elected officials enjoy being courted for such roles. But if you’ve seen a candidate position himself for a run, you knew what you were seeing.

Part of his ploy was to position his stewardship of Florida during the first part of the pandemic as the ideal balance of safety and freedom. Florida’s economy was unexceptional last year and its case totals unremarkable, but DeSantis, with the help of conservative media, was hailed as the anti-Andrew-Cuomo: a Republican who set aside the forceful recommendations of business closures and remote schooling. So he leaned into that with cases falling, waging a rhetorical battle against South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) and others as the most effective champion of personal freedom in the face of the pandemic.

It probably seemed like a good bet. Vaccinations were pushing cases lower and the pandemic seemed like it was moving to the background. It was easy to be the masks-are-a-choice guy because it seemed less likely that there would be a call to reimplement mandates. And Republicans, even in recent polling, don’t see masks as necessary because they aren’t worried about being infected. (Perhaps in part because they’re not following news about the virus very closely.)

chart, scatter chart © Provided by The Washington Post

But then the delta variant emerged. Cases in Florida began to spike and DeSantis was left with a bad set of choices: play it off as no big deal, push hard on vaccinations or reintroduce containment measures. He tried the second option for a while, without numbers budging much. So now he’s bear-hugged the first option.

President Biden and other Democrats have been very critical of DeSantis, meaning that many on the right have rallied to his defense. Over the weekend, the New York Post ran an essay suggesting that Biden’s criticisms of DeSantis were solely about “kneecapping a successful Republican governor,” using a definition of successful that excludes keeping coronavirus cases low. (Amusingly, the author defends DeSantis against charges that he didn’t push hard on vaccinations — which is in fact not a fair criticism — by pointing to criticism that he gave allies preferential treatment in getting them. “Would a vaccine skeptic do that?” Uh, no!)

It is, however, very clear that the pandemic is going unusually poorly in Florida, particularly because of how many of the state’s residents have been vaccinated.

Consider the daily average number of new cases by state, as of Sunday. If you look at the 49 non-Florida states and D.C., you’d expect a state in which about half of the population is fully vaccinated to be seeing about 27 new cases out of every 100,000 residents. Florida is seeing more than three times that many new cases.

chart, scatter chart © Provided by The Washington Post

Or consider hospitalizations. A state with the level of vaccinations seen in Florida would be expected to have about 15 people in the hospital for every 100,000 residents at this point, based on the trend in every other state. Florida is seeing more than 60.

chart, scatter chart © Provided by The Washington Post

On deaths, it’s less of an outlier, happily. Based on where other states are, we’d expect to see about 1.3 deaths per million residents, given its level of vaccinations. Florida is seeing about four — but it may also be the case that deaths will increase, because that metric understandably lags new cases.

chart, scatter chart © Provided by The Washington Post

Notice, too, that while Florida is doing about as well on these metrics as other Deep South states such as Alabama and Mississippi, those states are much less densely vaccinated. And it’s doing quite a bit worse than Texas, another Sun Belt state that is also less heavily vaccinated than Florida.

Something makes Florida exceptional here: These numbers are hazy enough (thanks to reporting periods and the lags in case and death counts) that one can certainly cobble together a case that there’s some other factor at play than indifference from state leadership. And, in fact, something else may be the problem. It’s hard to say.

But it is clearly the case that something is going unusually wrong in Florida. It is not the case, as DeSantis would like America to think, that this is simply business as usual.

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