Will Reopening Plans Change As COVID-19 Cases Spike In Sunbelt States?
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In this pandemic, unlike many other countries, the United States is really struggling to flatten the curve. More than half of all states are now experiencing a surge of new cases. This pandemic is particularly out of control in a number of Sunbelt states. Actually, the situation is severe enough that the governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut announced yesterday that anyone traveling to their region from nine states that are seeing spikes have to quarantine for two weeks. And this morning, we have three reporters covering three states that are of real concern - Florida, Texas and Arizona. NPR's Greg Allen is in Miami. Ashley Lopez with member station KUT is in Austin and Will Stone is covering the outbreak in Arizona. Good morning to all of you.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Good morning.
ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Morning.
WILL STONE, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: Greg, I want to start with you. I mean, we go back to May, Florida was telling visitors from the Northeast that they had to self-quarantine because case counts were skyrocketing there. What a turnaround now.
ALLEN: Yes, it's happened just like that. You know, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis says requiring people from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to self-quarantine helped keep case counts low here when they were rising in the Northeast. But as you say, cases are now rising here very rapidly. We had a new record yesterday - over 5,500 new cases. After weeks of downplaying the rising number of cases, Governor DeSantis is now recognizing that community spread is a real problem here in Florida. The clearest indicator of that is the rising percentage of people who test positive for the virus. Under reopening guidelines, the positivity rate should be declining and under 10%, if possible. In Florida, that was the case until the last few weeks. But since June, it's been rising rapidly. Now we have nearly 16% of those testing coming back positive.
GREENE: Well, Will, I mean, just like Florida, Arizona is seeing this rapid growth in new cases. And it sounds like leaders in both of these states are attributing some of this to more testing taking place. How true is that?
STONE: Well, Arizona has been ramping up testing. But at this point, it's clear this isn't just about testing. All the numbers are moving in the wrong direction, whether that's new infections or hospitalizations. And that's because the virus is spreading in the community. And what stands out here is the number of tests coming back positive. In Arizona, it's over 20%. And that's much higher than other states. If you're doing enough testing, it should be lower. The national average is just under 6%. And Dr. Joshua LaBaer, who does the COVID modeling at Arizona State University, said recently that Arizona's trajectory looks similar to the one New York was on a few months ago. So the biggest share of cases are coming from the Phoenix metro area. And many of them are people who are in their 20s and 30s.
LOPEZ: And we're seeing an overwhelming share of new cases among younger people here in Texas, too, people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. I mean, that would appear to be tied to Governor Greg Abbott allowing bars, restaurants and salons to reopen when he lifted statewide stay-at-home orders back in April. And epidemiologists also say a lot of these spikes in cases happened after holidays, like Easter and Memorial Day. That means a lot of transmission is happening during smaller gatherings, too.
GREENE: Wow, OK, so we're getting a picture of where some of the spread might be coming from. You know, Ashley, the biggest cities in Texas I know were lobbying Governor Abbott to allow them to impose their own local measures, like requiring masks. How has that gone over with the governor?
LOPEZ: I mean, Abbott remains reticent about taking any major action that would actually affect businesses. He's been urging people to stay at home if they can, telling them to wear a mask and wash their hands, avoid any gatherings. But he says actually shutting down businesses at this point is an absolute last resort. Here's Abbott during a recent press conference.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
GREG ABBOTT: Texans have already shown that we don't have to choose between jobs and health. We can have both. We can protect Texans' lives while also restoring their livelihoods.
GREENE: All right. So that's, like, the governor's perspective. Ashley, communities that have decided to take their own sort of way on this and put restrictions in place, do we think it's making a difference in those places?
LOPEZ: I mean, it's still pretty early to tell. I mean, cities were only recently allowed to start imposing their own rules. And mayors are saying that is not enough. They got the OK to penalize businesses for not requiring people to wear masks. But other than that, there's not much to enforce that would keep the virus from spreading. Meanwhile, daily case counts are rising really fast. There were 5,551 yesterday. That's more than double the number a week earlier.
GREENE: Greg, Governor DeSantis in Florida, I mean, he's one of these governors that a lot of people around the country have been following in terms of the approach that he has taken for his state. I mean, what is he doing right now? Is he taking action to respond to these case counts?
ALLEN: Well, he certainly has changed his tone in recent days. He's not rolling back any of the state's reopening. And he's been adamant about that. But he has ordered a step up in enforcement that's become very notable the last few days. Here, like the other states we've been talking about, the rise in cases is being driven by young people, you know, people in their 20s and 30s who've been ignoring social distancing guidelines. Over the past week, a number of bars in Florida shut down voluntarily after they became locations where COVID was spreading among staff and customers. Governor DeSantis held a news conference with the secretary of business regulation where they announced that they're cracking down on bars and restaurants that aren't following the guidelines.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RON DESANTIS: If you go in and it's just, like, mayhem like "Dance Party USA" and it's packed to the rafters, that's just cut and dry. And that's not just an innocent mistake. And so I told Tim, no tolerance for that. Just suspend the license.
ALLEN: Florida already suspended one bar's license. Counties around the state also say they're cracking down on enforcement. The governor, though, is resisting calls for an order to make face coverings mandatory statewide. A number of counties and cities, though, in Florida have done that, have made masks mandatory for people who go out to businesses and other locations.
GREENE: I want to move to another really important question when it comes to these rising case numbers and that's hospital capacity. I mean, Greg, what are you hearing about the situation in hospitals? Can they take more patients if this gets worse?
ALLEN: Well, the state puts out a, you know, daily total of capacity. And they say there's still plenty of capacity in beds, in ICUs and ventilators. That seems pretty clear. And doctors say that's true also. They say one reason is because the population they're seeing now is younger. In some places, the median age of those testing positive is under 30 now. And because they're younger and maybe some other reasons, doctors say, cases are less acute. And there's many fewer patients needing intensive care or ventilators. But even so, you know, hospitals are seeing more patients than they've ever seen before coming in in some parts of Florida. Miami-Dade County saw its largest number yesterday, more than 800 in one day. One medical center in Homestead reached capacity and began transferring patients to other hospitals in the system.
GREENE: What about in Arizona, Will? I know the governor there, Doug Ducey, keeps saying don't worry, there's plenty of hospital capacity. I mean, he said this surge was almost expected and that they planned for it. Are people reassured by what he's saying?
STONE: No, there are certainly concerns the state was too quick to reopen. And it was slow to put in place even basic measures, like face masks. There is still hospital capacity right now. But some models show that could change very quickly in the next two to three weeks. And the state would have to shift to a real crisis mode. I spoke to Will Humble about this. He used to run the state health department. And he's now head of the Arizona Public Health Association. He's one of the people who believe Arizona reopened without enough measures in place. And Humble says that even if Arizona went back to shutting down, which, to be clear, the governor does not want to do, it would be difficult.
WILL HUMBLE: The shutdown now is going to be a hell of a lot different from a shutdown before. Since there's so much community spread, you know, it's going to end up probably making it more likely that roommates and family members get infected because there's so much more virus in the community than there was back in March.
STONE: Recently, many cities did put in place requirements to wear face masks. And there is now much more public health messaging around that issue. But Humble says at this point, he'd shift his focus to preparing the hospital system to absorb a wave of very sick patients.
GREENE: And Ashley, briefly, the hospital situation in Texas?
LOPEZ: Yeah, it's a concern here, too. Some hospitals are reporting a surge of patients in their ICU. But the Texas Hospital Association says that as of now most hospitals have some headroom, as in they have set aside some capacity for more COVID patients. Officials said they also still have the option of moving COVID patients into other hospital wings.
GREENE: All right. That was Ashley Lopez with member station KUT in Austin, Texas, NPR's Greg Allen in Miami and Will Stone talking about the situation in Arizona. Thank you all so much.
ALLEN: You're welcome.
STONE: Thank you.
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