Naples, FL—October 30, 2020. Media headlines in Florida throughout October focused on the Florida Department of Health’s non-standard formula for calculating the state’s positivity rate, which reportedly skews graphics showing whether Florida meets federal gating criteria for Phase 3 reopening. At least two Florida mayors brought to light the state’s tolerance of human herd exposure (proximity without masking) and evidence of governmental belief that the coronavirus is over.
The Florida mayors’ concerns were validated in a White House press release issued October 27 that celebrates “ending the Covid-19 pandemic” as President Trump's top accomplishment. In the face of overwhelming evidence nationwide that the U.S. epidemic is now raging, White House operatives have been issuing damage-control statements about the mistaken claim made in the White House press release this week.
The U.S. Executive Branch replaced its Covid-19 Task Force leadership, along with strict adherence to CDC masking and social distancing guidelines, with a new scientist specializing in radiology this summer. Typically, public health policy is set by epidemiologists who practice an area of expertise in which scientists study disease spread among populations. New White House science advisor Scott William Atlas repeatedly has expressed belief in human herd immunity and has been criticized as a purveyor of junk science in the press. Atlas uses a definition of herd immunity that contradicts the definition espoused by the World Health Organization (WHO). “Herd immunity is a term used for an entire population that is protected through vaccination,” reports the WHO. “Never in the history of public health policy has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak,” according to the director-general of WHO.
Atlas traveled to Florida to meet with Governor DeSantis this summer. It is unclear if Atlas visited all U.S. governors personally. Members of a controversial and non-governmental group, The Great Barrington Declaration, which also endorses the practice of non-traditionally defined herd immunity, met with Governor DeSantis as well. Shortly after those visits, Florida’s non-standard phase 3 policies began September 25 with "limited social distancing" and all mask wearing mandates on the chopping block, meaning up for expiration, among counties.
Florida’s infection rate had soared over 1000% by mid-July. Then, enough local mask ordinances kicked in so that Florida flattened the curve by the first half of September. Since Sept. 25, Florida infections have increased 158% in some counties, and 88% statewide as of October 27, 2020, meaning the curve has turned sharply upward again.
If CDC criteria for Travel Health Notice (THN) Levels were imposed on Florida, the state easily would come up in the Red Zone for Level 3 High Risk. People traveling from some parts of Florida to New York would have to quarantine for two weeks. Not only is Florida’s new case trajectory accelerating and growing, but the incidence rate is nearly 15 people per 100,000, where more than 10 per 100,000 alone puts a population at Level 3 High Risk. Additionally, there were 746 new cases in Miami-Dade on October 28, where a level of 500 new cases alone triggers Level 3 High Risk THN.
Using Johns Hopkins data, and Fl DOH data as reported to SNS, Florida has neared or surpassed the key day measure of a 10% positive rate among those tested—a rate that also puts Florida in the red zone.
The CDC and WHO formula used for calculating percent positivity is "The number of positive test results compared to the total number of viable tests (as reported, whether positive or negative) conducted on a given day.
The Fl DOH wrote to SNS on October 19 that the percent positivity formula used in Florida is “the number of people who test PCR- or antigen-positive for the first time, divided by all the people tested that day, excluding people who have previously tested positive.” At the same time, “The Department of Health reviews and deduplicates data by day. Individuals who have never had COVID-19 and test negative on multiple days are counted every day they are retested,” wrote DOH to SNS. “This means people who test negative again and again are counted cumulatively in the denominator, as long as they don’t test positive. That calculation biases the rate downward”, says SNS chief scientific editor Richard Bliss. SNS reached out to Gov. DeSantis’ press office, which provided a public relations statement, but refused to comment on whether the state government was embracing and/or supporting White House herd exposure practices.
Finally, an executive order signed by the president in the last two weeks gave new powers to the executive branch. By changing federal career scientists’ status rating to political appointees from career employees, the president is now free to issue the command “your fired” to career scientists at will.
Rosalie Marion Bliss, MA, is a former science writer, publicist, and communications specialist for USDA’s chief scientific research agency. Bliss writes about research-based news and editorials during the pandemic.