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As Coronavirus Cases Surge In Florida, Can Schools Safely Reopen?

A woman walks past a closed restaurant this week in Miami Beach, Fla., during the coronavirus pandemic.
Chandan Khanna
AFP via Getty Images
A woman walks past a closed restaurant this week in Miami Beach, Fla., during the coronavirus pandemic.

In Florida, an additional 10,181 people tested positive for the coronavirus Wednesday, bringing the state's total to more than 301,810 cases. Florida has averaged more than 10,000 cases a day for the past week, and some public health experts said the peak is still weeks away.

A number of hospitals around the state are reporting all beds are filled in their intensive care units. Overall, health care administrators said adequate capacity is available in the system and they haven't had to add ICU beds as part of their surge plans. At Jackson Health System, Miami's largest hospital, CEO Carlos Migoya said one-third of the patients are now positive for the coronavirus. "We're comfortable that the next several weeks we can continue to do this," Migoya said. "But we can't do this forever."

At a meeting with Gov. Ron DeSantis, mayors of several South Florida communities said the key to tamping down the surge in the coronavirus is to change individual behavior. Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said if people don't comply with guidelines to wear face coverings, socially distance and avoid large gatherings, additional shutdowns may be necessary. "We need to be more responsible." Addressing the public, Gimenez said, "The irresponsible things that you do today may lead to that neighbor of yours not having a job tomorrow."

As COVID-19 cases have risen in Florida, many are questioning a push by the state to reopen schools next month. Florida recently issued a directive requiring all school districts to offer in-person instruction.

In Broward County, Florida's second-largest school district, Superintendent Robert Runcie said this week, contrary to that order, he's recommending the year begin with online instruction only. "When conditions improve," Runcie said, "additional options will be introduced, including face-to-face learning."

At the meeting with the governor, Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber criticized the state for telling school districts they must hold classes in person. "Everybody wants their kids back at school," Gelber said. "But we do send a message to them when we say we're going to open up your schools. We let them know it's safe for them. And I'm not sure a lot of our parents feel like they know, frankly, if it's going to be safe or not."

DeSantis interrupted, saying, "There's risk in everything." DeSantis said he believes the coronavirus poses a low risk for children. "I don't think we should try to scare parents and act like somehow this is more of a threat to their kids than it actually is."

Pediatricians and public health experts are more cautious in their assessments of how children are affected by the coronavirus. In Florida's Palm Beach County, where the school district is looking at its options for when school resumes, the county's health director, Dr. Alina Alonso, had a warning. "While many of these especially younger people are asymptomatic, when you take X-rays of their lungs ... they are seeing there is damage to the lungs," she said. "We don't know how that is going to manifest a year from now or two years from now. Is that child going to have chronic pulmonary problems?"

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As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.