TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Florida is on track this week to become the third state in the nation after Texas and California to surpass one million total cases of coronavirus.
The first two cases announced by the Florida Department of Health back on March 1 were both from the Tampa Bay area: a 29-year-old Hillsborough County woman who returned from Italy and a 64-year-old Manatee County man.
“The only reason we don’t have a lot of positive cases is we don’t have the ability to test on a large scale,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said at a news conference in March.
Months later, long lines have still been seen in recent weeks at the Tampa Bay area’s largest public coronavirus testing sites: Raymond James Stadium and Tropicana Field.
Doctors are better prepared now to treat coronavirus patients compared to the spring, but the state is seeing the largest increase in cases since the summer. The more than 190,000 cases reported in November are the most in Florida since the record of more than 319,000 in July.
The newly-recorded 7,364 cases on Sunday brought the state total to 992,661.
For the first time since late August, more than 4,000 people in Florida are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 as the primary diagnosis, according to data from the Agency for Health Care Administration.
During the initial spread of the virus, Florida’s schools closed, at first for only two weeks. But students statewide ended up finishing the school year learning from home.
“I don’t need anybody worrying about make-up time at this time,” Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Jacquelyn Byrd said on March 13. “I need you to worry about your family and your loved ones.”
The restaurant industry has been one of the hardest hit during the pandemic.
“We have (stay at home) to try to contain this so that Florida and the restaurant industry can come back,” Andrea Gonzmart told 8 On Your Side when her family decided to close The Columbia and all of its local restaurants in March.
On March 26, the United States became the global leader in confirmed cases of the coronavirus.
By April, Floridians and Americans across the country began to stay home to slow the spread.
Hospital workers and first responders became known as “essential workers.” Tampa police officers held a salute for the staff at Tampa General Hospital on April 9.
“I’m really emotional,” nurse leader Grace Millerd said. “I feel like crying. It’s so amazing how everybody works together trying to help in our community.”
As the medical fight continued, the economic battle raged on as unemployment claims overwhelmed the state’s system.
Frustration with the stay-at-home order was on display at a rally to reopen Florida in Tampa in April.
Fiona O’Rourke told 8 On Your Side she has been out of work since the middle of March.
“I’m in the hospitality field and I do banquets,” she said. “I don’t see that coming back anytime soon, so it does hurt.”
Even with efforts to protect the most vulnerable, like restricting visitation, the virus swept through nursing homes as helpless family members could only watch from a distance.
“It’s a horrible way to die and to die without your family I just I don’t know how people are doing that,” Kelly McNeal told 8 On Your Side in early May.
Her mother Lois Renz contracted the virus during a deadly outbreak at a nursing home in Tampa. She passed away right after her 73rd birthday. McNeal said she is grateful to the staff at AdventHealth Tampa who let her put on protective equipment to be able to say goodbye to her mom.
“Just to be able to hold her hand was huge for her, for us,” she said
The death toll from COVID-19 complications in Florida is nearing 19,000. According to the data from the Department of Health, more than 80 percent of the Floridians who passed away were older than the age of 65.
By June, Florida entered its second phase of reopening.
“We’re not shutting down, we’re gonna go forward we’re going to continue protecting the most vulnerable,” Gov. Ron DeSantis declared on June 16.
The governor resisted calls for a state-wide mask mandate, as cases surged over the summer in the sunbelt.
In the meantime, 8 On Your Side met more families experiencing the heartbreak of unexpectedly losing a loved one.
“They were crying like I was crying, like they had lost their mother, too,” Nikki Dermott said.
Renee Dermott, a 51-year-old longtime Pasco County Middle School teacher, passed away on July 19.
“We’re all stunned,” John Dermott said about the sudden loss of his wife. “I mean she was doing great this morning.”
At the end of September, Gov. DeSantis lifted all statewide coronavirus restrictions and issued an executive order making it harder for cities and counties to enforce mask mandates.
Florida’s curve slowly started to go up again in October.
“It’s called community spread because it tends to spread into all members of the population,” said Jason Salemi, a University of South Florida professor of epidemiology who has closely tracked the pandemic in Florida. “So the reason we’re seeing more spikes in cases is not because we’re doing more testing.”
8 On Your Side has spoken with infectious disease and public health experts who say wearing masks, hand washing, social distancing and avoiding large gatherings are ways to decrease transmission of the virus.
“Before we didn’t know what to do, now we know what we need to do,” said USF’s Director of Infectious Diseases Dr. Kami Kim. “We just sort of have to have a collective community will.”
She expressed concern before the Thanksgiving holiday.
“With the holidays coming up and people want to do family gatherings, kids coming home from college I think we’re really entering a time where it could be pretty scary,” Kim said.
One of the biggest challenges that remains across Florida and the world is preventing asymptomatic people who’ve contracted the virus from spreading it to others who are potentially more vulnerable for worse illness.
“Now we realize that some people if they do get symptoms, they often are shedding a lot of virus just before they get symptoms,” Dr. Kim said.
Instead, he has released recorded videos saying he is focused on getting promising antiviral medications into hospitals and preparing the state to distribute a vaccine.
“These do represent the greatest rays of hope we’ve seen,” DeSantis said in his video.
After the Regeneron antibody cocktail gained increased attention when doctors gave it to President Donald Trump in early October, 8 On Your Side spoke with Tampa radio show host Christopher Denson. He was the first COVID-19 patient to receive the drug as part of the clinical trial at TGH.
“Before the bag was even empty I was out of the bed,” Denson said. “Something I couldn’t do for three days.”
Tampa General Hospital has been identified as one of the first five in the state that will receive shipments of the coronavirus vaccine.
“Probably by spring we’ll have several million more doses available to help with first responders and the elderly,” said Dr. Jay Wolfson, the senior associate dean for Health Police and Practice at the Morsani College of Medicine at the University of South Florida.
Gov. DeSantis said Floridians will not be required to get vaccinated.
“The challenge is going to be getting to people in the community who are still hesitant to wanna take it,” Wolfson told 8 On Your Side.
Once the FDA grants emergency use authorization or approval for a vaccine, the priority in Florida’s rollout plan is to get those initial doses to health care workers, nursing homes and first responders.