Florida governor defends reopening schools during pandemic

Gov. Ron DeSantis said the risk to children contracting COVID-19 is minimal

The Bradenton Herald
By Mark Young

BRADENTON, Fl. — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Saturday said the emergency order issued this past week to force schools to fully reopen isn’t just a one-line order and parents still have a choice.

“If a parent feels uncomfortable, then distance learning is still an option,” DeSantis said during a news conference at Blake Medical Center in Bradenton. “I’m a big believer in school choice.”

Florida Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who was sitting next to DeSantis, said the Department of Education’s order cannot be ignored and must be adhered to, “but having said that, all the points the governor said about the choice and decision making and safeguards are encompassed in that order.”

However, school boards themselves, “Cannot ignore this order,” Galvano said.

The Manatee School Board and others in the state have been devising plans to return safely to school.

Despite the DOE’s order, Manatee officials are leaving open the possibility of some students learning from home. A final vote by the school board could come Tuesday.

DeSantis said local decisions are still important as schools reopen next month.

The school boards and superintendents have to be involved,” DeSantis said. “It has to be a collaborative effort. The main thing is what’s in it for the kids? And what harm is going to be done by continuing to keep them out of school? We’re proud of our distance learning here in Florida”

DeSantis said Florida became the model for a lot of other states when it came to distance learning this past spring, but, “As proud of that as we are, there’s an achievement gap that has been developed. That will only be exacerbated. We know there are huge, huge costs for not providing the availability for in-person schooling.”

DeSantis said the risk to children contracting COVID-19 is minimal and that he would have no problem sending his own children off to school during the pandemic, if they were old enough to go.

“The risk to children is extremely low,” DeSantis said. “The CDC will show the statistics that under the age of 18 is much more likely to be hospitalized for seasonal influenza than for this. Obviously, the fatality rate is much higher for seasonal influenza among those under the age of 18 and this has proven to be.”

The Florida Department of Health reported Friday that more than 17,000 children have tested postive for COVID-19, including 468 children in Manatee County. The Manatee cases represent more than 10% of all the cases in the county.

DeSantis said studies are also showing that children are more likely to be infected by adults rather than children infecting adults.

“It’s been found over and over again as people looked at this and studied this, particularly in Europe, that the school children aren’t vectors for this,” he said. “For whatever reason, they usually get infected by the parents and aren’t infecting adults. Places that have seen the schools open have not seen the schools contribute to increasing the prevalence of the virus.”

At the same, DeSantis said, parents can make those decisions on their own and if they choose distance learning, “I respect that. But I don’t know if there is a huge amount of data to say you should keep a healthy kid out.”

No immediate plans to reopen bars

While schools will reopen soon, there are no immediate plans to reopen standalone bars at this time, DeSantis said.

“We set out procedures and people were not following that,” DeSantis said. “I was getting reports of packed party situations. I want those businesses to operate, but it’s going to be the status quo for now until we see the positivity rate go down and we can reopen those businesses under a more stable situation.”

The governor covered a variety of topics, along with Galvano, Manatee County Administrator Cheri Coryea, HCA West Florida Division President Dr. Ravi Chari, Blake Medical Center CEO Randy Currin and Blake Medical Center Medical Director of Emergency Medicine Scott Selph.

Selph said the most important message to the community is that hospitals are open and no one should be afraid to seek treatment for other medical issues. Selph said traffic into the hospital dropped by almost 50% in the early stages of the pandemic, but, people are seeking treatment again.

As far as COVID-19 cases, Selph said the age of diagnosed patients have dropped into ranges between 30-45 and, “most are discharged to go home.”

DeSantis said it was an important message to send because people with early symptoms of having a stroke or heart attack were not going to the hospital early enough, “out of fear of catching COVID-19.”

The results were either fatal or one of the reasons ICU bed space became in short supply.

“You’re’ not going to catch COVID-19 at the hospital,” DeSantis said. “It’s one of the safest spaces you can be. The bulk of what they do is not coronavirus. If you have other medical symptoms, you need to come in.”
Selph said Blake Medical Center has diagnosed 300 cases of COVID-19, “most of whom were sent home and we have had zero staff infections.”

Testing frustrations

DeSantis acknowledged that the speedy turnaround for test results were promises that have largely gone unfulfilled and said he understands people’s frustrations.

“If you are asymptomatic and get a test, are you supposed to wait around for seven days or longer? Most people aren’t going to do that,” DeSantis said.

While boasting that Florida is testing almost as many residents per day as some countries have done since the start of the pandemic, DeSantis said it has come at a cost to the state’s testing supply.

Manatee County has tested about 12.5% of its population after a slow start and is now averaging about 3,000 tests a day according to Coryea. Though there are three public testing sites, they are limited in the amount of tests they can do in one day, and more often than not, close earlier than scheduled when they run out of tests.

DeSantis said it’s not just a Manatee County, or even a Florida problem, but a national one.

DeSantis said opening up testing to everyone who was just curious to know if they had COVID-19, despite being asymptomatic, was the right thing to do, but it has taken a toll on the supply chain. Add those tests to the tens of thousands that are required every two weeks for front line healthcare workers and the result was inevitable.

The governor did not indicate there is a dramatic shortage in tests, but that they may prioritize the public testing sites for people showing symptoms and allow them to be tested first. However, DeSantis said he is working closely with the White House to maintain Florida’s testing capabilities.

Nursing homes and the younger generations

“When this all started in March, we knew nursing homes would be ground zero,” DeSantis said. “We did things like prohibiting visitors since mid March and that’s a tough thing for people. We also prohibited discharging COVID patients back into nursing homes and we required long-term care facility staff to wear PPE, but we gave them the equipment to wear.”

Positive cases in long-term care facilities have been heading in the downward direction as the pandemic continues, but they remain linked to a largest portion of the deaths.

“In Manatee County, you have 138 COVID-related deaths, but 91 of them are related to long-term care facilities,” DeSantis said. “That’s 66% that have been linked to those facilities. In Sarasota County you have 100 deaths and 65 were related to those residents. It’s a really significant part of this fight.”

DeSantis said the vulnerable residents must still be the focus of this ongoing crisis, which is why he has opened 13 COVID-only nursing homes across the state, including three between Tampa Bay and Charlotte County.

“We are working on bringing a couple more of these facilities so these patients can be isolated and cared for,” DeSantis said. “We started one in Miami-Dade last week and I think it will be filled in a couple of days. To your north, we are seeing a surge in places in Pinellas County so this is an important tool to protect the residents of long-term care facilities who are the most vulnerable.”

The elderly felt the initial impacts of the pandemic the hardest and even in Manatee County the median age of those infected were around 57 years old just two months ago. The median age in Manatee County now is 39.

DeSantis said a lot is being made out of the recent surge in cases, but few understand the process of the data and Galvano agreed.

“You can’t just look at part of the data,” Galvano said. “You have to look at all the data.”

(c)2020 The Bradenton Herald (Bradenton, Fla.)

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