While COVID-19 Stats Rise In Some States, Cases Drop In Others

Jun 18, 2020
Originally published on June 18, 2020 10:30 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

What is happening with COVID-19 cases in this country? It really depends on where you live. In some places, it's good news, cases are dropping. In other places, though, they are spiraling. This morning, we have three places and three reporters. Rick Pluta is from Michigan Public Radio, and NPR correspondents Greg Allen in Florida and Debbie Elliott in Alabama are also with us. Good morning, everyone.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

RICK PLUTA, BYLINE: Good morning.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Morning.

KING: Debbie, let's start with Alabama because the number of reported infections there is double what it was at the beginning of the month - the number of reported daily infections, I should say. What's going on in Alabama?

ELLIOTT: Well, scientists trace this spike back to Memorial Day weekend when the state started opening things back up and loosening restrictions on commerce. You know, people flocked to beaches, started showing up at restaurants. Now Alabama is seeing this rise in cases, also seeing hospitalizations on a steep incline and at the highest levels since the start of the pandemic. Testing is up significantly statewide, but that alone doesn't explain this big jump in the number of cases because the percentage of tests coming back positive has also been going up.

The seven-day average is now more than 14% of tests coming back positive. A week ago, it was less than half that. The other trend is that this is affecting everyone now. Earlier, urban areas in Alabama, Birmingham, for instance, and Mobile where the issue. Now there is significant spread in rural counties as well. Health officials are saying that is evidence of uniform community spread statewide.

KING: And probably pretty troubling because some of those rural areas in Alabama are poorer areas. Greg, the growth in cases in Florida this week is even higher than it is in Alabama. Is there an understanding of what's going on in Florida?

ALLEN: Well, you know, it's been about a month and a half since the state started reopening in early May. But even before some counties opened, we started to see numbers of new cases trend upward. In the past week, those numbers have become really startling - nearly 2,800 cases on Tuesday, a new record. Mayors in Miami and Miami Beach and some other local areas are concerned. In Miami and Miami Beach, they're putting the next phase of openings on hold. In Palm Beach County, they're going to - talking about making face coverings mandatory. That's something already the case in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, but a lot of concern here.

KING: It's still considered or it's still being treated as if it is open to debate in Florida whether the numbers are spiking because of reopening, right?

ALLEN: Oh, definitely. I mean, some elected officials, and really mostly Republicans, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, still maintain that the increase in cases is largely because testing is up. And that's a message that we've heard from the White House from President Trump and Vice President Pence, that keep reopening, as we test more, we'll see more cases. Public health experts, though, say while increased testing does bring in more cases, it's not the only reason. In Florida, we've seen the percentage of people who are found positive for COVID-19 going from 4% a few weeks ago to over 12% now. And in Palm Beach County, the health director, Alina Alonso, issued a warning this week about the rising number of cases.

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ALINA ALONSO: When you hear people telling you the test numbers are going up because we're testing more, that is not the whole picture. The positivity tells you that that is not true, that we're having more cases because there is a wider spread of the virus in the community.

KING: OK, so worth noting that she is directly contradicting the governor there in Florida.

ALLEN: Right.

KING: Rick Pluta, let's talk about Michigan because it's a very different story there.

PLUTA: That's true. The latest number of total and known and suspected COVID-related deaths is 66,269. That's a grim number. But for a couple of weeks now, there's been a flattening in the rate of new cases and deaths. And Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer acknowledged this yesterday.

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GRETCHEN WHITMER: Our action is working. Michigan is standing out as having done well in terms of pushing our curve down.

PLUTA: Right. So despite those big numbers, that's really great news. Michigan's schools have been closed since March. And at that same press conference yesterday, Whitmer said it's now time to make plans to reopen in the fall because it appears it might be safe.

KING: What did Michigan do right?

PLUTA: Well, Michigan State Health Department says that before the strict intervention when so many things were shut down, one infected person would infect three others on the average. By April, that number dropped so that on average, an infected person would spread the virus to less than one person. That's obviously a statistical number, but it shows how the state has succeeded in slowing the infection rate. It's also at the point where hospitals and the rest of the health care network, well, they can manage COVID-19 case loads. Nursing homes and prisons, though, remain a particular problem.

Now, Republicans in the legislature have sued the governor. She's a Democrat. They say she's overstepped her authority and also that these restrictions have come at a great cost to the economy. But now people in Michigan can, well, get a haircut again. Restaurants are reopening and, as we said, plans to reopen schools in the fall are underway. Although the governor does warn, if there is a resurgence, all of this reopening is temporary.

KING: Greg, you are seeing a resurgence in Florida. Is Governor Ron DeSantis there saying we might put some restrictions back in place given what's going on?

ALLEN: No. Basically, he's saying these numbers are rising, but don't worry about them. As he points out, deaths and the number of people who are being hospitalized for the coronavirus are still far below what they were back in April when we were - had our first peak. Here's what he had to say this week on a day when Florida set a new record for COVID-19 cases.

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RON DESANTIS: We're not shutting down. You know, we're going to go forward. We're going to continue to protect the most vulnerable.

ALLEN: You know, Governor DeSantis says the rise in the percentage of people testing positive for the virus he believes is being driven mostly by isolated outbreaks among people like farm workers and in prisons. And so there's no indication he's going to do anything to pull back on opening up the state. He went to a NASCAR race in Homestead Sunday, and he's welcoming the Republican National Convention to Jacksonville in August.

ELLIOTT: This is Debbie in Alabama where the governor here, Republican Kay Ivey, has taken a very hands-off approach. She's emphasizing personal responsibility to curtail the virus as she's moved to get the economy back moving. She hasn't even given a press briefing on the pandemic since May.

KING: Oh, that's really interesting. And, Debbie, you said that uniform community spread is happening statewide. Within the state of Alabama, though, where are the hot spots?

ELLIOTT: Right now, the state capital, Montgomery, has more cases than anywhere, surpassing the two larger cities in the state; also seeing spikes in the rural black belt named for its fertile soil but also a region where there are a lot of underlying issues that are important. Here's Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, the director of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

JEANNE MARRAZZO: These are largely underresourced people who are living in the Deep South who are largely black who we already know have, by the demographic analysis of COVID, a huge burden of mortality with this disease.

ELLIOTT: Now mirroring the national trend, in Alabama nearly 46% of COVID deaths are African Americans. They're 27% of the population.

KING: NPR's Debbie Elliott and Greg Allen and Michigan Public Radio's Rick Pluta, thanks, guys. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.