Indeed, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have found that the virus also spreads quickly even among people who are asymptomatic. Ten percent of patients are infected by someone who has no symptoms.
So far, there’s no sign of a spring break surge in Florida’s safety net hospitals, which would potentially be more likely to take in a struggling spring breaker. But it’s also too early. Infected Florida spring breakers are still incubating the illness, spreading the disease. And, state officials don’t know if there will be a surge in other parts of the country because they’re not tracking anyone who has left Florida without symptoms.
“There’s the strong possibility that we could start to see cases popping up after the incubation period. And if it’s not the spring breakers, their parents and grandparents are at high risk as well,” said Nitesh Paryani, an oncologist in Lakeland, who said his cancer specialty doesn’t mean anything amid the public health crisis. “Everybody is treating coronavirus, whether we want to or not. All physicians are being pulled into this fight. It’s an all hands on deck situation.”
Ironically, the risk of returning spring breakers carrying the virus has already manifested itself in Florida. In the city of Gainesville, home to the University of Florida, four students have tested positive. One of the students had returned from Portugal while on spring break, according to local media. The Gainesville Sun reported that one student was a dentistry student who worked in a clinic after returning.
The revelation that there was positive tests among university students played into the university system’s decision to scrap in-person classes for the rest of the semester. Initially, schools planned to delay opening campuses after spring break and resume classes in early April. DeSantis admonished university students this week for returning to fraternity houses to party instead of going home.
Florida State University President John Thrasher, whose college was on spring break this past week, said that he is hopeful that many of the school’s 41,000 plus students will stay away, even those who live off-campus locally.
“We are doing everything we can to discourage them from going back,” Thrasher said.
But while Florida schools contribute to the spring break crowds, students also stream in from the rest of the South and even the Midwest. And it’s not quite clear how many came to the state – and where they are going now that the bars, restaurants and many of the beaches have shut down.
“I would think it next to impossible to track that many people and potential exposures,” said Craig Fugate, the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who also led Florida’s emergency management agency when the state dealt with back-to-back hurricanes. “This may end up being tracked by spring breakers if they get sick here or once they get home and working backwards.”
Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing arm, does not have figures for this year, but says that more than 32 million visitors come to the state in March through May. An average of 2.7 million students come to Florida each year, the group estimates.
DeSantis acknowledged Thursday — at the opening of a South Florida mobile testing site — the unintended consequences of a March 11 directive that he and the State University System Board of Governors worked together on. They told students to delay returning to campus from spring break for two weeks.
“We were thinking, don’t come back yet,” DeSantis said. “Instead, they all went back, and they were drinking at the bars every night.”
Despite the clear risks, experts said that several factors might mitigate the threat posed by the spring breakers.
“It certainly has the potential to cause spread, but it may not be as dramatic as some people might think,” said Lessler, the Johns Hopkins professor. Young people are more likely to be asymptomatic, and might therefore be less contagious, he said.
Lessler also cited the short duration of spring break, which lasts about a week for most revelers. The generation time of the virus ranges from four to eight days, weighted towards the higher end, he said. That means that infected spring breakers could spread the virus to one other person, but there might not be enough time to pass the virus on again before heading home.
Still, all public-health officials who were interviewed warned that returning spring breakers could easily bring the virus to new parts of the country, as the disease continues its relentless spread.
“Students on spring break are likely to introduce [coronavirus] into communities that have not yet been exposed to the virus, especially in quieter less well-connected parts of the country,” said William Hanage, professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in an emailed statement. “However this does not change the fact that the virus is well established and community transmission is widespread. Once this has happened, limits on travel become much less important.”