Florida Still Sees Record COVID-19 Surge As School Year Begins, But DeSantis Digs In

The Republican governor won't budge on his order banning mask mandates in schools, despite the delta variant causing severe infections among kids.

Florida continues to be the COVID-19 epicenter of the highly transmissible delta variant, with record new cases and rising hospitalizations as some schools start their new year ― but the deadly dilemma does not seem to faze the state’s Republican governor.

Florida recorded an alarming 157,388 new cases between Aug. 2 and Aug. 8, bringing the state’s total cases to nearly 2.8 million, according to data reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In that same time period, the state saw 791 new deaths, bringing that total to 39,934.

COVID-19 hospitalizations also increased at record-breaking levels for six consecutive days last week, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

As the new delta variant of the disease spreads like wildfire across the state, health officials have noticed a rapid increase in severe infections among an age group that was once widely considered to be at the lowest risk of serious outcomes from COVID-19: children.

A nurse administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a kid at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing and vaccination site at Barnett Park in Orlando on Aug. 4.
A nurse administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a kid at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing and vaccination site at Barnett Park in Orlando on Aug. 4.
Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images via Getty Images

More children were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Aug. 3 than in any other state, according to The Miami Herald. The federal government’s hospital capacity data shows that 46 pediatric patients were admitted to a Florida hospital with a confirmed infection that day, while an additional 22 were hospitalized with a suspected case.

The only state to report a higher total number of pediatric patients in hospitals with confirmed COVID-19 infections on Tuesday was Texas at 142 children, compared to Florida’s 135. It’s unclear if more recent data will show Florida at a higher total than Texas.

While COVID-19 cases have surged in Florida regardless of age group, weekly case data analysis by the Herald shows that the sharpest spike over the past month has been among children under 12 ― the very age group that is still not eligible for the vaccine.

The consistently rising numbers and spike in serious COVID-19 cases among children have not deterred Gov. Ron DeSantis from his agenda opposing vaccine and mask mandates. Along with the state legislature, DeSantis has limited local officials’ ability to impose public health recommendations meant to curb the spread of the virus.

Last month, the governor announced an executive order threatening to withhold funds for schools that impose mask requirements for students, arguing that parents should make the choice instead. And with school starting this week in some Florida districts, many parents are pushing back against the Republican’s ban.

Families of students in schools across Florida filed a lawsuit against DeSantis on Friday, arguing that mask requirements are a public health issue and not a “parents’ choice issue,” as the governor has framed it, attorney Charles Gallagher told NBC News. The families have students who Gallagher said are too young to get vaccinated, have medical conditions, or deal with other issues that put them at higher risk or will make them suffer if they are denied the right to a safe school environment.

On Friday, Florida congressional candidate Elvin Dowling sued DeSantis in a separate complaint about barring schools from requiring students to wear masks. Dowling is a father to three school-aged children in Broward County, and told WPTV-TV that he is “alarmed by the increasing rates of COVID-19 infections in our state, while our feckless governor twiddles his fingers, runs his mouth and thumbs his nose at science.”

Last week, two Florida school districts stepped up to announce they would follow the CDC’s recommendations and require masks when they start the new school year. Four other districts have adopted mask policies since then, including one in the state capital of Tallahassee.

“I did a lot of soul searching, a lot of thinking,” Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna said at a news conference. “If, heaven forbid, we lost a child to this virus, I can’t just simply blame the governor of the state of Florida. I can’t.”

On Friday, Florida’s Board of Education approved an emergency rule granting private school vouchers for children who feel harassed by a district’s reasonable COVID-19 safety policies, including mask mandates. School districts can also adopt mask requirements as long as parents or legal guardians of students are allowed to opt-out.

But DeSantis dug his feet into the ground on Monday regarding his ban on mask mandates, announcing that the Board of Education could withhold the salaries of superintendents and school board members who don’t comply.

“We have established a process that requires consultation with experts in the areas of public health and medicine. We will follow this process, which has served us well, and then make a final decision,” Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who runs the fourth-largest school district in the nation, told CBS Miami in a response.

“At no point shall I allow my decision to be influenced by a threat to my paycheck; a small price to pay considering the gravity of this issue and the potential impact to the health and well-being of our students and dedicated employees,” he continued. “I want to thank the Governor for recognizing that students should not be penalized.”