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Slow, steady improvement in Florida COVID-19 hospital data

Analysis: hospitalizations are down, a positive trend that started nearly a month ago.
Sunstar Ambulances are seen at the entrance to emergency Mease Countryside Hospital Wednesday, July 1, 2020 in Safety Harbor.
Sunstar Ambulances are seen at the entrance to emergency Mease Countryside Hospital Wednesday, July 1, 2020 in Safety Harbor. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Aug. 20, 2020

Right now, Florida is showing slow but steady progress in its fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Many, many people are still infected, still getting sick and still dying, but the state continues to move in the right direction.

Two weeks ago, we reported on a turning point in the number of people in Florida hospitals with COVID-19. Since then, the trend has grown unmistakable. This has come as bars remain closed, arenas remain empty, many employees continue to work remotely and new academic years at schools and colleges loom ever closer.

The number of people currently hospitalized with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19 peaked in late July. In the three and a half weeks since, that number has dropped about 21 percent.

As of this week, there are fewer than 6,000 such patients in Florida, down from more than 9,300 at its peak.

Just like with other stats, using a rolling seven-day average smooths out any oddities in the data, and the weekly average has dropped every single day since July 22. (Keep in mind that current hospitalizations appear to drop slightly on Saturdays and Sundays before rebounding some during the week, but the cycle is nowhere near as extreme as that for other data, like reported deaths.)

One thing to note: the improvement is slow. The decrease right after the peak was only about 60 percent as steep as the increase right before it.

In other words, the curve isn’t symmetrical. There were more people in the hospital a week after the peak than there were a week before it. Things won’t get better as fast as they got worse.

But they are getting better.

Two weeks ago, when this trend was newer, death numbers were still skyrocketing. Since then, they’ve leveled. Florida hasn’t set a new peak in new reported deaths since the beginning of August (again, using rolling seven-day averages).

It may sound like clearing a low bar, but going two weeks without setting a new death peak is a huge step. The most recent number is 163 new deaths reported per day, down from a high of 185.

While there is no way to know how many people are infected with the virus at any given time, current hospitalizations data is one of the best guesses as to whether that mystery infection number is going up or down. The number of reported deaths lags by a few weeks but isn’t dependent on testing capacity, like the number of cases is.

As schools plan to reopen next week, it’s important to note the hospital data trend now. Things are getting better. And more good news could be on the way. Reported deaths haven’t fallen much yet, weeks after hospitalizations started dropping.

But things can change. So if hospitalizations begin to rise again, indicating a reversal in the trend of the virus’ spread, that probably wouldn’t be seen in death data until weeks later.

This is a weekly series examining Florida’s coronavirus data. Send questions or suggestions to ltaylor@tampabay.com.

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