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The latest wave of coronavirus infections is worsening in some parts of Florida, but for the most part remains milder than the omicron surge.
State health officials logged the biggest increase in new cases since late February, but hospitalizations remain lower than before the omicron variant engulfed Florida.
Florida has logged an average of 29,715 new infections each week since April 22, data released Friday by the state Health Department shows, the biggest jump since Feb. 25.
Hospitals across Florida tended to an average of 981 COVID-positive patients per day during the week ending Friday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That number has steadily climbed since April 14, when the average number of patients reached a pandemic low of 676. But the current level is still lower than it was Dec. 1, when it topped 1,000.
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Gov. Ron DeSantis said in January his administration would differentiate the number of patients in the hospital for COVID from those hospitalized for something else and who had tested positive for the disease while there. That has not happened yet.
“In terms of severity, it doesn’t seem like we’re experiencing what we did with delta or omicron,” Florida International University epidemiologist Dr. Mary Jo Trepka said. “But I think it’s too early to make any predictions. … Even with omicron, it took several weeks to see its effects on hospitals.”
As infections and hospitalizations rise, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has raised warning levels in Miami-Dade, Sarasota, Charlotte and DeSoto counties. The pathogen in those counties now pose a “medium” risk to their health-care systems, the federal agency says.
To reduce strain on hospitals, the federal agency recommends that people in those counties wear masks on buses, trains and other public transit vehicles; and if they exhibit COVID-like symptoms, test positive for the respiratory disease, or have been near someone who has.
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A federal judge in April struck down the Biden Administration’s mask requirements for planes and public transit. DeSantis signed executive orders last year barring Florida cities and counties from fining people who violate mask orders and social distancing rules.
DeSantis also signed a law in November stopping school districts from enacting mask mandates. Just 23% of children ages five to 11 have received at least one COVID-19 shot, as have 59% of 12- to 19-year-olds, the state Health Department reported Friday.
“Either the variants are getting weaker and weaker and weaker, or we’re getting stronger and stronger and stronger, and I think it’s the latter,” said Dr. Larry Bush, an infectious disease specialist and a former president of the Palm Beach County Medical Society.
How many Floridians have been infected with COVID?
Florida health officials have documented just under 6 million cases. But that tally is “vastly underestimated,” Bush said, pointing to CDC statistics.
The virus may have already infected 56% to 61% of Floridians, the CDC estimates, which would be more than 12 million people. The federal agency arrived at those figures by examining a sample of 1,685 antibody tests collected from commercial labs from Feb. 1 to Feb. 21.
People who get infected by the pathogen develop what are called anti-nucleocapsid (anti-N) antibodies, the CDC says. These are different from antibodies produced after being vaccinated.
Anti-N antibodies have been found in about 75% of tests conducted on children younger than 18 years old nationwide, the CDC wrote in a study published April 29. That rate declines to about 33% among Americans ages 65 and older. Kids are the least vaccinated age group; senior citizens, the most.
Given the milder nature of the omicron variant and its subvariants, combined with immunity granted by vaccines, many of those infected may not have experienced symptoms.
And since hospitalizations aren’t keeping pace with the current case increase as they did during earlier waves, Bush said that “implies we have a lot of herd immunity going on.”
He said he knows of 12 doctors, all of whom had booster shots, who contacted him in the past few weeks to say they had received positive results from their at-home tests. Two of them took Paxlovid, the antiviral pill. The others didn’t feel too ill, he said.
Their cases, and many like theirs, never make it into official statistics because the government does not collect at-home test results. Americans have ordered hundreds of millions of at-home tests from the federal government since the White House launched deliveries of the tests in January.
Weeks after omicron surged in December across Florida, deaths began piling up. But that has yet to happen more than a month into the latest wave of cases, driven by omicron subvariants such as BA.2 and BA.2.12.1.
Florida’s COVID death toll has increased an average of 115 a week since April 22, the smallest weekly increase since the week ending April 2, 2020. The deadly respiratory illness has killed at least 74,060 Florida residents.
Are COVID cases going down in Florida?
Sewage tests across the state show little sign the latest swell of infections is slowing down.
The Loxahatchee River District in northern Palm Beach County detected about 1,010 viral fragments per milliliter of wastewater it sent Monday to Boston-based Biobot Analytics. That’s an increase of 96 fragments per milliliter from two weeks prior, a smaller increase compared to two previous readings.
But elsewhere, in counties such as Miami-Dade, Orange and Seminole, genetic concentrations of the pathogen have continued to rise since March.
“We are anxiously looking to see the effect of several events such as SunFest will have in the next week to 10 days,” said Dr. Alina Alonso, director of the state-run Palm Beach County Department of Health. SunFest, the annual downtown West Palm Beach music festival, attracted tens of thousands of attendees last week after organizers canceled it in 2020 and 2021.
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Dr. Kitonga Kiminyo, an infectious disease specialist in Boynton Beach, said he is preparing for the worst, despite relatively low numbers of coronavirus patients.
“We are not seeing any increase in COVID admissions or hospitalizations at this particular time,” Kiminyo said Friday. But, he added, “With the continued unmasking in the community and the rising cases in the community, we expect to start seeing cases in the hospitals perhaps in the next few weeks.”
Florida health officials have counted 15,467,896 residents — about three out of four vaccine-eligible Floridians — with at least one shot in their arms, but that number has dropped 3,201 since April 8. Health Department press secretary Jeremy Redfern said the totals are “preliminary,” without offering further explanation.
More than 5.2 million Florida residents have gotten booster shots as of Friday, health officials reported.
Florida overcounts its total inoculation count by at least 600,000 in part because vaccine providers misclassify out-of-staters as residents when they send their data to the state Health Department, which has offered no plans to investigate or fix it.
Chris Persaud is The Palm Beach Post’s data reporter. Email him at [email protected]