Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, Florida Department of Health; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Florida's slow response to the coronavirus may have set the stage for a disastrous outcome in one of the country's most vulnerable states.

Driving the news: Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order yesterday, but there's bipartisan concern that he held off too long, letting the virus spread too far, before finally taking steps that many other governors embraced weeks ago.

Why it matters: Florida is the third biggest state in the U.S. and one of the highest-risk for coronavirus. Yet DeSantis' response has lagged well behind other populated states.

  • He let state beaches stay open during spring break, publicly downplayed the risk, and resisted a statewide lockdown until yesterday — and those delays may have made things worse.

By the numbers: Florida’s population is among the most at-risk in the nation, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

  • One in five residents is 65 or older. Between age and pre-existing health conditions, nearly half the state's population is at heightened risk of contracting the coronavirus.
  • The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Florida is increasing rapidly every day, with more than 900 new cases confirmed on Tuesday alone.

By the time the number of confirmed cases starts getting alarming, a crucial window already has passed. The coronavirus is highly contagious, and newly infected people can be contagious before they ever start to feel sick.

  • That's why social distancing — of the kind Florida had not mandated until yesterday — is so important.

"I think there is a lot of risk that the state was heavily seeded and could see significant growth in new cases," former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told Axios.

What they're saying: One Florida Republican operative told Axios that DeSantis was mindful of the "significant" impact such a decision would have on the state's economy and budget and "doing everything possible to limit the damage."

  • “I also think he was making a political calculation that, down the road, there's going to be some blowback, particularly from our base, on some of these more restrictive policies,” the operative added.
  • A Republican congressional aide from Florida told Axios they can understand DeSantis' considerations, but that it's clear he should have been more aggressive and direct sooner about how dire the situation was becoming.

The bottom line: Some local governments in Florida had previously issued stay-at-home orders, but DeSantis resisted, saying as recently as Tuesday that the White House coronavirus task force made no such recommendation.

  • But the coronavirus easily jumps from one community to another. All it takes is someone from one county with a stay-at-home order going to a bar in another county without one.

DeSantis' office did not respond to requests for comment.

Subscribe to Mike Allen's Axios AM to follow our coronavirus coverage each morning from your inbox.

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