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DeSantis Criticizes Early COVID-19 Projections As TMH Updates Its Timeframe. How Do Models Work?

Bar graph showing number of coronavirus infections vs. number of tests.
Florida Department of Health

Florida seems to have passed its peak for coronavirus cases. Even though the state is still logging new infections, the rate of new cases overall appears to be decreasing. Meanwhile, Gov. Ron DeSantis has gone on defense. Ahead of plans to reopen businesses that have been closed, DeSantis is attacking the same models the state has relied on to guide its COVID-19 response. 

“You go back a month, month and a half, we heard report after report saying it was just a matter of time until Florida’s hospital system was completely overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients," he said during an April 21st press conference. 

DeSantis has been defending the state against blowback to his plans to reopen businesses. Part of that defense has involved pointing to the models that have been used to figure out the impact of the Coronavirus on the state, and criticizing journalists for their reporting.

“In fact, there was an article in March in the Miami Herald that said this week, this week in April, Florida could see 465,000 people hospitalized throughout the state of Florida. The reality? Slightly more than 2,000. Those predictions have been false," DeSantis said. 

Journalists did not produce those estimates out of thin air. The numbers came from several scientific models cited by both state and national health officials who used them to guide policy decisions regarding the coronavirus.

“In March we were told that Florida would reach its surge, a peak in new COVID cases by the middle of May. Then a week later it was forecast that April 23 would be the peak," said the Palm Beach County Medical Society's Dr. Brent Schillinger. 

Schillinger is one of dozens of people appointed to DeSantis' task force to examine how to restart organizations and business that have shuttered amid the coronavirus. He acknowledges the situation hasn’t turned out the way early models predicted.

"Then the next week, which was last Monday, we heard that the surge would be May 6. And then a report that just came out three days ago on Friday said, ‘Oh we’ve already passed our peak it was April 2.'"

The models have changed over time as more information has come in, and people have made behavioral changes.

Take North Florida, for example. When Tallahassee Memorial Hospital unveiled its prediction earlier this 

Graphs showing different scenarios for the coronavirus in North Florida
Credit Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare
Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare used a model created by the University of Pennsylvania to determine its original June COVID-19 peak date for the Big Bend and North Florida.

month, it estimated Coronavirus cases wouldn’t begin to peak in the region until June. That prediction was based off a series of underlying assumptions, such as how well people would comply with social distancing rules. And, when it was clear the model being used was wrong, the hospital acknowledged it in a statement, saying  “the spread of coronavirus in our region has not met the projections from this model to date. Models cannot account for all variables.”

The hospital also noted researchers are still learning about the impact of social distancing, population density and the effects of heat and humidity on the spread of the coronavirus. Hospital CEO Mark O’Bryant recently updated the prediction for North Florida.

“If everybody does what they’re supposed to do, we should be over the peak in the next week or two," he said during a meeting of loal officials. 

That’s a big IF.

Florida A&M University epidemiologist Perry Brown says a model is just a best-guess approximation of what could happen. They’re works-in-progress, really. And Brown says ultimately, all models will be wrong:

“As the general public look at some of the projections, they should always think of it as ‘approximately this’ an not a static ‘absolutely this’ number.” 

Still, that doesn’t mean Florida is in the all-clear. Capital Regional Medical Center CEO Alan Keessee worries if the state botches the reopening of businesses, there could be a secondary outbreak.

“I want to reemphasize that this could change for the worse if we do not continue social distancing practices and have a very strategic reopening. In my personal opinion, I think it would be very detrimental to our community if we go all out at one time," he said.

There’s still no vaccine for the coronavirus. Recent studies have shown it was likely circulating in the United States far earlier than first thought.