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Florida Leads U.S. COVID-19 Cases; Social Distancing, Mask Use Urged


On the worst day of the pandemic in New York, the state set a record - 12,000 new cases in a day. Now New York's cases are declining, and Florida has surpassed that record. The state reported 15,000 new cases in a single day over the weekend. Florida is leading the way as many states report a surge in cases. So what can authorities do? NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us. Allison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Well, how bad is 15,000 new cases?

AUBREY: Well, to put it in perspective, as Reuters put it, if Florida were a country, it would rank fourth in the world for the most new cases in a day behind the U.S., Brazil and India. That's a lot. It's staggering. And despite this, the state's Department of Education said last week schools should reopen for in-person instruction. Two Disney theme parks have reopened, and two more may open this week.

INSKEEP: Which suggests the stakes here. And does it also suggest what's going wrong? States have opened up, and so cases have gone up.

AUBREY: Sure. I mean, the recent surge in cases has been led by younger people, who we know have been out and about more, gathering. Now, they're much less likely to die from the virus, but what we're seeing now not just in Florida but in many states is what many experts, including former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, anticipated. Eventually, it spreads into the wider community.


SCOTT GOTTLIEB: Inevitably, what happens is if the younger people go out and get infected because they're not taking those precautions, it's going to get back into a more vulnerable population. That's what we're seeing right now. You're seeing rising cases in nursing homes. So tragically, we're going to see deaths start to rise. And that's why I said two to three weeks until you see deaths get back above a thousand.

AUBREY: Meaning we could see about a thousand deaths a day. So it is critical for, you know, states to continue to test and isolate infected people and for everyone to do their part.

INSKEEP: Oh, wait a minute. You just said it's critical to test, but isn't it getting harder right now to get a test result in any kind of decent time?

AUBREY: Yes, there are testing delays. Now think about it. In addition to people with symptoms getting tested, there's more widespread testing. People getting elective procedures are being tested. People are being tested as part of back-to-work protocols, testing in nursing homes. Now, some labs are working around-the-clock, but this all adds up. People are waiting, at times, five to six days to get commercial test results.

A Trump administration official acknowledged this over the weekend. Here's Brett Giroir of the Coronavirus Task Force. He spoke on NBC.


BRETT GIROIR: We need to decrease the time to turn around those results. The big surge is because we're testing everyone at nursing homes. That's a really, really good thing. But that's millions of tests per month to protect our elderly. And we're going to fix that problem.

AUBREY: He says we're going to hear more from the administration on this soon.

INSKEEP: Well, the surgeon general is talking about turning things around in two or three weeks if people can follow directions. Is there evidence that people are being more compliant with social distancing guidelines, masking and so forth?

AUBREY: Well, I mean, the two- to three-week timing of a turnaround is questionable, but there is a trend in the direction of people being more compliant. Analysts at the University of Pennsylvania have a social distancing index. They take location data from all of our cellphones and look at how much people are congregating in the same spaces, so in stores or restaurants, other places. And Alexander Arnon of UPenn says there's been a noticeable shift in the last few weeks.

ALEXANDER ARNON: It's very clear that these states - Arizona, Texas, Florida - as well as a few others have seen actual declines in the rates of social contact. And what is driving behavior here is news about rising case counts and deaths.

AUBREY: He says in Arizona, since the end of June, kind of early July, there's been about a 20% less social contact. Now, is that enough to make a difference? Kind of depends on what else people do. Are they wearing masks? So it's a wait and see.

INSKEEP: Well, can I ask about one particular rule in a state you just mentioned, Arizona? In that state, as in a lot of places, restaurants can open. People can go dine. The restaurant is...

AUBREY: Right.

INSKEEP: ...Just supposed to operate at reduced capacity.

AUBREY: That's true.

INSKEEP: Is that enough of a precaution to help?

AUBREY: You know, dining in a restaurant or going to a bar is pretty high-risk, especially without masks. And lots of infectious disease experts agree on this. Remember; it's prolonged indoor contact that is known to be hospitable to the spread of this virus. And if you mix in loud talking, touching glasses, plates, utensils that other people have touched, this is a risky scenario. So, you know, in fact, analysts at JPMorgan analyzed spending by millions of credit card holders, and they looked at Johns Hopkins data on case counts, and they found that higher restaurant spending in a state actually predicted a rise in cases three weeks later.

INSKEEP: Ow, meaning that more time in a restaurant correlates with higher case counts.

AUBREY: That's right. And, I mean, this is just a correlation, but it backs up what infectious disease experts have been saying for months, Steve. I mean, avoid prolonged indoor contact in crowded spaces. If you do dine out, eat outside, or best to do a pickup order. And try to be masked when you go to a restaurant.

INSKEEP: OK. And what we're learning here, Allison, is you might kind of generally follow the directions and still not do enough to protect yourself. So let me ask about masking.


INSKEEP: Is there a best practice for a mask?

AUBREY: Well, first thing, and this might seem obvious, Steve, but if it's down on your neck, it is not protecting anybody.

INSKEEP: And yet, I keep seeing people wearing masks like a neck beard. But, please, continue.

AUBREY: Yes, that's right, not protecting the Adam's apple. It must be covering your nose and your mouth because they're connected in the back. Here's Sonja Bartolome. She's a pulmonary and critical care medicine specialist at UT Southwestern. She says, remember; the virus is transmitted when a sick person sneezes or breathes out these respiratory droplets that could contain the virus and someone is standing too close.

SONJA BARTOLOME: Both inhaling droplets and exhaling droplets happen in both the nose and the mouth. And so any face covering is better than nothing. And whatever you need to do to make it comfortable, as long as it's covering the mouth and the nose both, will be effective.

AUBREY: And when you take it off, Steve, best remove it from behind the ear, and don't touch the front of it. And also think about face masks the way you think about underwear. Change them out and wash them frequently.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) OK, Allison, thank you very much.

AUBREY: (Laughter) Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.