It was back to school for thousands of Florida students Monday while President Donald Trump’s new pandemic adviser dismissed teachers’ and parents’ COVID-19 concerns as “hysterical” amid reports of a big jump in the number of kids who have tested positive in districts that resumed in-person instruction.
“We are the only country of our peer nations in the Western world who are this hysterical about opening schools,” the adviser, Dr. Scott Atlas, said as he pressed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his advisers to reopen schools as quickly as possible.
Atlas pushed DeSantis on the issue during a roundtable discussion held in Tallahassee on Monday. The number of confirmed cases in Florida climbed over the weekend to 620,000 and the number of deaths eclipsed 11,200, making it one of the hardest-hit states in the country, the latest NBC News figures showed.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases in children jumped by more than 23 percent with about 9,200 new infections in the last two-plus weeks, according to news reports citing Florida Department of Health data. Most of the new cases were teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17.
“The recent August numbers represent a whopping 191% increase in children infected in Florida from only about six weeks earlier on July 9,” the South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper reported.
Atlas, however, insisted the chances of children getting infected are “extraordinarily low.” He is a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a physician.
“When you look at what’s happened in the other countries — the U.K., Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, France, England, Italy, Spain — they are all opening schools,” he said. “We here in the United States, I have people all over the world calling me and emailing me, ‘What is going on here?’ We have the data. There’s extraordinarily low risk in children.”
The Washington Post on Monday reported that Atlas is a champion of “herd immunity,” which is a strategy that’s been tried in countries like Sweden to curb the progress of the pandemic by exposing people to the virus instead of shutting everything down. Most scientists say it doesn’t work.
In a statement to NBC News, Atlas insisted herd immunity was not the strategy of the Trump administration.
“There is no policy of the President or this administration of achieving herd immunity,” he said. “There never has been any such policy recommended to the President or to anyone else from me. That’s a lie.”
Last month, the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (FCAAP) recommended that school districts where the positivity rate of new cases exceeded 5 percent over the previous two weeks delay reopening until the rates go down.
Statewide, an average of 12 percent of coronavirus tests were positive over the seven-day period ending Aug. 30, according the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard.
The positivity rate is a much lower 5.5 percent on the official Florida Department of Health COVID-19 dashboard, but still over the rate recommended by the FCAAP.
Why the difference in rates? Johns Hopkins gets its numbers from the independent COVID-19 Tracking Project. While the Florida Department of Health, which gets its numbers from the medical examiners in each of the state’s 67 counties, has been accused of censoring the data and ousting a whistleblower. The agency has denied the allegation.
NBC News has reached out to both the Florida Department of Health and Johns Hopkins for explanations.
Either way, it should be up to the individual school districts to decide when and how they should reopen, the Florida Education Association has insisted repeatedly in its ongoing lawsuit against DeSantis and the state.
The association’s appeal of DeSantis’ statewide school reopening order is currently on hold.
Most of Florida’s new cases and deaths have come after DeSantis, at the urging of Trump, began reopening the state in May. At that point the pandemic, which had already hit the Northeast hard and killed thousands of people, was just starting to be felt in the Sunshine State.
“We haven’t seen an explosion of new cases,” DeSantis said April 29, the same day he signed an executive order to reopening Florida after less than two months in quarantine.
While Trump has repeatedly claimed that he and his administration have done a “great job” on the pandemic, the U.S. leads the world with more than 6 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 183,000 deaths.
The U.S. also accounts for almost a quarter of the 25 million cases and more than 847,000 deaths worldwide, according to the Johns Hopkins figures.
In additional news on the coronavirus:
South Carolina officials broke up a massive pool party over the weekend where hundreds of people went without masks and there was no attempt to socially distance, the local NBC News affiliate reported. The party was at the Palmetto Compress Apartment Complex in Columbia, the state’s capitol, not far from the University of South Carolina. ”It was a perfect storm if anyone had the virus to be passed to one another,” Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins said. South Carolina has reported more than 118,000 cases since the start of the pandemic, including more than 2,700 deaths.
“Flying the Friendly Skies” just got a little cheaper. United Airlines said it was bowing to the demands of disgruntled customers and dropping an unpopular $200 fee for most people who change a ticket for travel within the United States. A short time later, Delta announced it too was eliminating change fees. “We’ve said before that we need to approach flexibility differently than this industry has in the past, and today’s announcement builds on that promise to ensure we’re offering industry-leading flexibility, space and care to our customers,” said Delta CEO Ed Bastian. The moves comes as United, Delta and other airlines try desperately to lure people back to flying despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. U.S. air travel has recovered modestly since April, but passenger traffic remains down about 70 percent from a year ago. And most airlines don’t allow anybody to fly if they’re not wearing masks.
Nigel Chiwaya and Joe Murphy contributed.