Florida Kids Head Back to School Amid COVID-19 Surge

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has attempted to block school districts from imposing mask mandates on students

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Doctors in Florida say they're seeing many more coronavirus infections among children just as students begin to return to classrooms.

There has been “an enormous increase" in COVID-19 cases among children in July and August at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ronald Ford said.

Most of these children have been treated in the emergency room and sent home, but "those that are admitted are sicker than what we’ve seen before, and many of them are requiring care in our intensive care units," Ford said.

But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the share of pediatric hospitalizations is still between 1.1% and 1.4% in the state, which is how it has behaved throughout the pandemic. On Wednesday, 177 of the 15,077 patients with COVID-19 — about 1.2 % — were children, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"We saw this last year when school was coming in, there was a lot of things put out and I think sometimes there's agendas at play," DeSantis said at a news conference in St. Petersburg. "There's been no change in the proportion of pediatric patients who are Covid positive. Now obviously we have more people that are Covid positive in hospitals than we did six weeks ago, so the raw numbers are increased for everybody, but there's not been an increase in the proportion."

About 20 COVID-positive children sought treatment at the South Florida hospital's emergency department in June, Ford said.

“That number went to well over 200 in July and, even at this point in the month of August, we are already up to over 160. So we’re well on the way to breaking July’s record," Ford said.

On Tuesday, the hospital had 9 positive patients admitted, with five in the ICU, Ford said.

Ford's advice to parents sending their children back to school: Get information from authoritative sources.

The Biden administration says it's looking for ways to throw their support behind Florida schools that defy the governor's orders of making masks optional. NBC 6's Kim Wynne reports

“There's a lot of misinformation out there about COVID-19, about testing, about the vaccine," Ford said. “The best thing you can do to protect your child is to keep them away from the virus. This virus is extremely infectious. And it doesn’t take much virus to infect and cause symptoms and disease."

Masking works, reducing the incidence of transmission and the chances of children getting the virus, he said.

“So first and foremost, masking is going to be one of the best defenses we have," Ford said.

DeSantis has attempted to block school districts from imposing public health protections on students, saying parents should decide whether their child should wear a mask at school.

At Wednesday's press conference in a St. Petersburg elementary school, DeSantis maintained his stance and said the federal government was considering imposing a nationwide mandate for kindergarteners, first-graders and other students.

“Obviously if you are talking about the federal government coming in and overruling parents in our communities, that would be something we would fight back vociferously against,” the Republican governor said.

The U.S. government, through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has issued guidelines recommending masks be worn indoors at schools nationwide, but hasn’t said it could order a federal school mask mandate. However, President Joe Biden said Tuesday he’s “checking” whether he could intervene to prevent governors from blocking school districts from imposing such mandates, though he also said he didn’t believe he had the authority “thus far.”

At least three school districts — in Alachua, Broward and Leon counties — have appeared to defy the the governor's order.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent a letter on Monday to the Leon and Alachua school districts saying their adopted policy appeared not to comply with the new rules. He demanded a response and said he may recommend the state’s Board of Education withhold the salaries of the superintendent and school board members.

The Broward school board, after waffling for several weeks, voted Tuesday to require masks for students, teachers and staff when their school year begins on Aug. 18. DeSantis’ spokeswoman Christina Pushaw then said “it’s safe to assume Broward has opened itself up to a similar response.”

Miami-Dade's superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, said Florida's largest district will decide what to do after consulting with experts in public health and medicine as the county's 334,000 students prepare to return to classrooms Aug. 23. He said he won't be influenced by the governor's threats.

“At no point shall I allow my decision to be influenced by a threat to my paycheck; a small price to pay considering the gravity of this issue and the potential impact to the health and well-being of our students and dedicated employees,” his statement said.

Ford's advice for parents with children who are 12 and older is to get them vaccinated.

“This is again another layer of safety that we can offer our children," he said. “Not only to keep them healthy but to keep them from bringing the virus home and maybe exposing other people in the household or in the community."

Kevin Cho Tipton, a critical care nurse practitioner for two South Florida hospitals, said teams in the emergency rooms and ICUs are exhausted. He said unvaccinated people often spread the virus among their family members.

“They often tell us someone threw a surprise party for us. Someone said they wanted to come over and have dinner. Or they went out, or went to the movies. Or did something around people that they trusted and wound up getting sick. This is the most common story," Tipton said.

AP and NBC 6
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