COVID-19

As COVID Hits Florida's Children, DeSantis Stands Firm, Says ‘Deal With' It

Florida's governor, conceding case levels are higher than some anticipated, stands by opposition to school mask mandates -- a practice an advisor told him was "child abuse" and "destroying the country."

NBC Universal, Inc. We’re seeing a rapid increase in the number of children getting sick during this wave of COVID-19. Especially in Florida, which NBC 6 Investigator Tony Pipitone found, is setting off alarms across the country.

The delta variant of COVID-19 is different, more contagious, and it is fueling a record-high wave of virus in Florida that is rapidly impacting its children.

Florida's plight was a top item on Thursday's agenda of the White House COVID Response Team.

"In the past week, Florida has had more COVID cases than all 30 states with the lowest case rates combined," said the team coordinator, Jeff Zients. "And Florida and Texas alone have accounted for 40% of new hospitalization across the country."

Hospitals in Florida are slammed with patients with COVID-19. NBC 6's Marissa Bagg reports

Both states are led by Republican governors who champion their opposition to government-imposed public health precautions, including by banning mask mandates in public schools.

DeSantis often trumpets his hands-off policies in what he calls the "free state of Florida" and has referred to measures supported by the nation's leading infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, as "Faucism," a play on words on "fascism."

Thursday, the governor conceded things are worse than expected.

"We are seeing people testing positive in higher numbers than I think most people anticipated," he said at an appearance in Jacksonville.

His assessment, though, included this message to Floridians: deal with it.

"It’s airborne. It's aerosolized," he said of the delta variant. "So we just have to understand when that's happening these waves are something you just have to deal with."

What Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital is dealing with is more and sicker children.

"It seems that pediatric patients are a lot sicker than they were last year," said pediatric ICU nurse manager Anthony Sanders. "The increase in the ones that are having to be admitted is striking to us."

So are the numbers revealing the state of the children of Florida:

Last week, 13,596 children under 12 tested positive statewide, 21% of those tested. One month earlier, 2,094 did, less than 8% of those tested.

That’s a 550% increase in cases.

A similar pattern for children in hospitals: 341 under 18 admitted last week; 55 during the week ending a month earlier. That's an increase of 520%.

President Biden, well aware of the situation in Florida, praised those Thursday in states who are defying DeSantis and other like-minded governors.

"To the mayors, school superintendents, educators, local leaders standing up to the governors politicizing mask protection for our kids, thank you," Biden said. "Thank God we have heroes like you."

DeSantis first threatened to defund a portion of schools' budgets if they mandated masks, then tried to dial that back to only threatening the salaries of school district leaders. But by Thursday afternoon, he had given up on both threats, conceding he could do neither.

Florida public school officials could face financial consequences including withholding of salary if they implement mask mandates. NBC 6's Cristian Benavides reports

He also appeared to shift positions Thursday on the release of more detailed information on the state of the virus in Florida, information he began withholding from the public at that level of detail months ago.

The move came after his opponents for days have criticized what they say is a lack of transparency in the state once known for vigorous public records law compliance.

"It’s about crisis management," said state Rep. Christine Hunchofsky (D-Parkland) during a Democratic caucus media event Thursday. "There's no way to effectively manage a crisis when you are not communicating and sharing data people need to keep their families safe."

After a reporter asked DeSantis why more detail about cases could not be released, now that the state is breaking daily records for infections, the governor for the first time showed signs of reconsidering.

"So we’ll look at that," he said. "In terms of breaking it down by county, that may not be a bad idea. I know we used to look at that a lot."

But he remains opposed to mask mandates for children or anyone else, a position reinforced by an advisor who told him in July "my position is simple. Masking children is child abuse."

That California psychiatrist, Mark McDonald, continued, "They do nothing to help us medically and they’re destroying the country."

One of the people helping Biden try to save the country from a pandemic that has killed more than 617,000 Americans, including 40,528 Floridians, has another view.

"I disagree strongly with the verbiage of it being child abuse," said Cameron Webb, a COVID-19 Response team advisor. "I think the idea is we’re doing everything we can to protect our children. My 9-year-old and 6-year-old, they wear masks because they want to stay safe."