Dr. Scott Atlas joins DeSantis for press conference.

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

In a press conference today, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced:

  • The number of people currently hospitalized in Florida with COVID is down nearly 60% from the July peak;
  • The number of people currently in ICU in Florida with COVID is down about 52% since the July peak;
  • The number of COVID-positive patients across all Florida hospitals represents roughly 6% of all the licensed hospital beds in the state of Florida;
  • Yesterday—and the weekends typically see higher admissions—was the lowest single day of admissions since the middle of June;
  • Florida reported about 1950 new cases today, the lowest number since June 14;
  • Antibody testing at Florida’s drive-through sites has continued to register between 20% and 25% seropositivity, while the diagnostic positive percentage has fallen to the 5%-6% range;
  • 27% of all hospital beds in Florida are empty, and 24% of all ICU beds are empty;
  • ED visits for COVID-like illness have returned to levels seen during the first half of June.

DeSantis said his administration has focused on three areas: 

  1. Protecting the most vulnerable, the elderly in long-term care facilities. 
  2. Making sure they support hospital capacity and front-line healthcare workers. Beds were never an issue, but there has been stress on the staff. The state gave hospitals the ability to manage their patient load regarding elective procedures. 
  3. Keeping society functioning. DeSantis said we can’t just shut everything down and hide until it goes away. 75,000 private sector jobs were added in July at the height of the outbreak, and Disney opened just as infections peaked, but the trend has been downward since the theme parks opened. Gyms, beaches, hotels, restaurants, theme parks, youth activities, and sports are open and operating. “Part of that is having K-12 and universities open and available… When the universities closed… at the start of the pandemic, you’re taking people in a relatively low-risk environment and then spreading them across the country, where they’re probably in higher-risk environments.”

1.1 million children in face-to-face instruction

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said schools have been opening up throughout the month of August, with the goal of giving maximum choice to parents but “recognizing that the best form of education, without question, is when that teacher is standing in front of that classroom with that child, and they’re imparting wisdom and knowledge, and the kids are interacting, is the absolute best form of education.” 

Corcoran said all Florida school districts are open as of today. Almost 60% of parents and students chose face-to-face instruction. As of today, 1.1 million of 2.8 million students in Florida are in face-to-face instruction. 

“There’s a considerable cost to shutting down medical care”

Dr. Scott Atlas, a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said the president’s general strategy is the same as the one outlined by DeSantis: “Number one, protect the highest-risk people and save lives by doing so, and number two, making sure we don’t have hospital overcrowding because, as Governor DeSantis has known throughout this, we really need to make sure medical care is given to everyone else… There’s a considerable cost to shutting down medical care, whether it’s cancer, chemotherapy, live organ donor transplants, cancer screenings, biopsies, immunizations, all kinds of things went by the wayside in the prolongation of the lockdown…

“We cannot sacrifice our children”

“And then, of course, the third part of the president’s strategy… is making sure that we safely open schools and the economy because we cannot sacrifice our children. There’s nothing really higher on the national agenda than educating our children, and the harms of not opening schools are really tremendous, and all that goes with the known evidence that children have very, very low risk from this illness—in fact, less than seasonal influenza… We want to give options to parents because everyone has to feel safe, and there are certain high-risk families, certain high-risk teachers, certain high-risk students… the goal is open, in-person schools, of course the options for distance learning are very important…”

“Do you support what Sweden is doing?”

A reporter asked about a recent Washington Post story that mentioned Atlas in the context of the herd immunity discussion: “Do you support what Sweden is doing?”

Atlas responded, “I was shocked to see the story because they never asked me for a comment, first of all. You know, there’s news, there’s opinion, and then there’s overt lies. And that was never a strategy that was advocated by me in the administration. The president does not have a strategy like that. I’ve never advocated that strategy. So that whole discussion in the Washington Post was just really irresponsible.”

“If you’re not feeling well, do not come to the campus”

Another reporter asked whether it’s too early to say that school reopenings are going well so far. 

Corcoran responded that he didn’t think it was too early. “We had one school that we had to shut down… kids are very low spreaders… we don’t have a case in Florida yet where we’ve seen a child in the K-12 setting spread it to an adult…But the other way around… If you have a cold, if you have a symptom, an adult [has no excuse], all of us know when we’re not feeling well. If you’re not feeling well, do not come to the campus…

“What you had in that one school where we had to close in Osceola, it was 12 teachers interacting in the break room… our teacher population is very young, very safe, but who’s not safe is our substitutes. The reason, really, we had to close is because we couldn’t backfill the substitutes because our substitutes are mostly over 65, and they’re just not available to us right now… [When kids are in school], we don’t have to worry about food insecurity for these kids, we don’t have to worry about there being an achievement gap, we don’t have to worry about a decline in child abuse cases, we don’t have to worry about drug overdoses and all of those other things, far more severe, far more dramatic, and far more certain than any of the low risk to COVID.”

“How many of those people developed any type of symptom? How many of them were ill?”

DeSantis spoke about a school in Georgia that quarantined 1000 people because they had been in the halls with a COVID-positive person. “What I would ask is, if there are 3 cases in a school somewhere, how many of those people developed any type of symptom? How many of them were ill? You see a lot of things on college campuses, like the University of Alabama had all these, quote, cases. I don’t think a single one of them required hospitalization.

“And so that is important, because to say if there’s a case or two, all of a sudden that means the world’s ending, a lot of times those are folks who are asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic. And the second thing I’d say is… when you’re sick, stay home… That’s going to solve so much of it… If somebody’s symptomatic, they should not go to school; if they do go to school, they should be sent home, as a student, but then the other students—just because you were in the hall with somebody, you should not have to quarantine. Quarantining healthy people, I think, is a big problem… You need 15 minutes of close exposure before you would even do that.”

“If you’re talking about closing schools for the children during this, then you must necessarily close schools from November through April during flu season”

Atlas added, “It turns out that in K-12 schools, half the teachers are under 40 and 92% are under 60. It’s not a high-risk age group, although there are high-risk teachers, clearly… But for very low-risk students, who are virtually zero risk of death, not zero, but at very, very low risk of hospitalization, much less than seasonal influenza, in fact the JAMA Pediatrics Journal… their bottom line was ‘we have found greater chance of getting a critical illness from influenza than from COVID-19 for children.’

“What that means is that if you’re talking about closing schools for the children during this, then you must necessarily close schools from November through April during flu season. Of course, we don’t talk about that because that’s really not rational policy, even though we have 35, 60, 90,000 people in the United States die from influenza, and 70% of them are those same high-risk elderly people. We have to look at the data and understand that the schools are a very low-risk environment.”

“It’s very harmful to have schools closed”

Atlas continued, “When you look at the contact tracing studies that have somehow been ignored in the United States, they’ve been done several places in our peer nations in other countries, and for instance in Switzerland, 0.3% of cases originated in the schools. By the way, that includes originators being teachers. 0.3%. Other studies have validated this. So children are very, very low-risk. We know how to protect the high-risk people. It’s very harmful to have schools closed. So when you start introducing closure of schools because people have positive, asymptomatic tests, that’s sort of not the purpose of testing.”

“We’re focusing and ramping up testing where it counts, and that means saving more lives, specifically high-risk people”

“The purpose of testing, like everything else we’re doing here, is to stop people from dying, stop people from getting a serious illness from this disease, and allowing other people, who are very low-risk, to function. And that’s what the new CDC guideline came out this week on testing, and I’m very much for that, as was every single doctor on the Task Force, despite what you may read, is that we do testing in a very smart way. The Trump administration, and particularly hats off to Admiral Giroir of the Task Force, who [shepherded] this entire testing regime—we have a massive testing apparatus now. And what we’re doing is leveraging that into a very smart, targeted strategy to make sure that we’re using testing for actionable items. That means, if you have a test, what are you going to do about it? And what we’re doing here, and the guideline articulates this very clearly, is that we’re focusing and ramping up testing where it counts, and that means saving more lives, specifically high-risk people…”

“We are the only nation among our peer nations that are hysterical about opening schoolsWe’re the only country that seems to be willing to sacrifice our children out of our own fear”

A reporter asked again whether it’s too soon to open the schools, too soon to say that there isn’t child-to-adult transmission.

Scott answered, “No. The issue is not is there child-to-adult transmission… there’s less risk of child-to-adult than adult-to-child… The answer is no, it’s not too early, but I’m going to explain why. The things you have to remember are that children have no serious risk from this disease. It’s very safe for them. They can handle this. And most of them are asymptomatic, even if they test positive. That point number one.

“Point number two, we can never over-emphasize that when you close schools to in-person learning, it is enormously destructive. Not just the fact that reading skills go down 30%, math skills go down 50%. Distance learning alone is a failure. It’s not the same thing, by the way, for people who are lower income and middle income. This is a huge problem for those families. Somebody who has a second home in the Hamptons or something, okay, they’re going to buy a bunch of iPads. That’s not what real life is for people with distance learning…

“[School] is where we discover vision or hearing needs. That’s where child abuse is reported… an estimated 215,000 cases of child abuse were never visible and never reported, just during the first 2 months of the lockdown. These are serious, enormous problems with not having in-person schools. Remember, the children are not at significant risk here. We just need to focus—and it’s very challenging—on protecting people in these multi-generational homes in the communities, high-risk teachers… can teach from home…

“We are the only nation among our peer nations that are hysterical about opening schools. When you look at the rest of our peer nations—and we’re talking about Canada, the UK, Switzerland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Italy, Spain, every single country—they’re opening schools because they recognize the data. And the data is that children do not have a significant risk from this disease, and they recognize the enormous harms from closing the schools. We’re the only country that seems to be willing to sacrifice our children out of our own fear. I just can’t accept that.”

“We will never do any of these lockdowns again”

A reporter asked about the possibility of locking Florida down again.

DeSantis replied, “We will never do any of these lockdowns again, and I hear people say they’ll shut down the country, and honestly, I cringe, because we know places that have done that. The most draconian lockdown in the world has been Peru, military enforced since March. They have the highest per capita mortality in the world from COVID. And at best, what a lockdown will do is delay. It does not reduce the ultimate mortality… and it creates a lot of other problems with mortality that a lot of people don’t necessarily focus on.

“So one of the things I’ve tried to stress in the past couple of weeks… COVID’s important, but if you look, we have about 6% of our beds filled with COVID-positive patients. All of those individuals we care about… but out of 22 million people, we’ve got issues with people delaying cancer screenings, not coming in for heart or stroke, we’ve lost ground on the opioids since March, some of the other mental health issues… There’s a lot of fear out there. We’ve tried to allay those fears with the schools and some of these other things…”

“We know what’s going on; this is not March or April; we’ve had a massive decrease in the case fatality rate since then”

Atlas added, “The most recent thing that came out, I think this is very important because it has to do with the college age population, the CDC outlined that in the month of June, ages 18-24, 25% of… people in that age group had serious thoughts of committing suicide. This is a lockdown issue, and so we really have to be very careful. There are 650,000 Americans who have cancer or on chemotherapy, and during the first 2 months of the lockdown, half of them didn’t come in for their chemotherapy. You had thousands of tumors that weren’t biopsied, known tumors; we had 2/3 of cancer screenings that were not done; we had more than half of childhood immunizations not done; 85% of living organ transplant surgeries were not done. Part of it was due to the intentional exclusion of medical care… but these harms from the lack of medical care were mainly due to fear, fear instilled in patients.

“These were patients who had brain lesions, brain abnormalities that could rupture and cause paralysis or death—my neurosurgery friends at Stanford were calling the patients personally, and 40% of them weren’t coming in; they were afraid. The public has to understand that you’re in good hands here in Florida, you’re in good hands in the national leadership as well. We know what’s going on; this is not March or April; we’ve had a massive decrease in the case fatality rate since then; we know a lot more; length of stays in hospital are one-third of what they were at the peak; 50% less mortality, if you are hospitalized.”

“The point of all these things are to save lives, not to document asymptomatic people who are low-risk”

Atlas continued, “Far less people need an ICU if you’re hospitalized; far less people need a ventilator if you go into an ICU. And the age of people who are getting these cases is possibly 20+ years younger than the high-risk elderly who got it back in March and April. So we’re doing much better in protecting the elderly… the administration is not just adding point-of-care testing, for instance, to every single certified nursing home in the country, that means rapid turn-around tests… We’re adding point-of-care testing to senior centers… There’s a big effort being made to ramp up our protection of the elderly because the point of all these things are to save lives, not to document asymptomatic people who are low-risk.”