Florida coronavirus cases tick up in September, stalling progress

And the number of COVID-19 hospital patients is no longer dropping.
An EMT for sunstar wipes down a wheeled stretcher outside of St. Anthony’s Hospital on Monday, July 13, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
An EMT for sunstar wipes down a wheeled stretcher outside of St. Anthony’s Hospital on Monday, July 13, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]
Published Sept. 24, 2020

Florida’s coronavirus cases have risen again, if only slightly, and it’s not just an issue of college students.

For the first time since early July, statewide numbers of new cases of the virus have increased throughout September — albeit a small uptick, nowhere near as sharp as the early summer.

And current COVID-19 hospitalizations, one of the most timely ways to measure the spread in how many people are sick, are no longer dropping sharply but have instead flattened out. In a few large counties, the count is going back up again.

From all indications, far fewer people are infected with the virus right now than during the spring and summer. But it’s possible the state’s steady progress has hit a bump in the road.

The weekly average in new cases dropped a bit Thursday but remains higher than it was two weeks ago.

Since the end of August, new cases in Florida have spiked among people ages 18-22 as the virus spread through college campuses once students moved in. There are now about 500 new cases in that age group every day, almost twice as many as there were in late August.

Some 9,000 more college-aged Floridians tested positive than there would have been without that spike.

Related: Coronavirus cases add up at Florida universities. How are they responding?

Florida coronavirus cases are spiking most among college students but have ticked up in older residents, too.

Rolling average of cases by "Case Date" for last seven days, for selected age groups. Data through Sept. 23. Excludes cases confirmed August 31, which the Department of Health says include a backlog of old tests from Quest Diagnostics labs.

But for older Floridians, there has also been a slight increase in new cases.

New cases in people aged 30 or older began to tick upward again in most of the state around the second week of September. One notable exception had been Miami-Dade, which had continued to see new cases in that age range decrease. But now cases are leveling out in the state’s largest county, as well.

Raw case counts are, of course, dependent on testing demand and volume. The reported positivity rate, or the share of new tests that come back positive, is nearly the same the past week as it was the week before the recent rise. The increase is much shallower than it was in late May and early June.

But the number of people hospitalized from the disease is also starting to move in the wrong direction.

On Thursday, there were about 2,200 people primarily diagnosed with COVID-19 in Florida hospitals. That number had been dropping almost every single day since July, when it peaked at more than 9,000.

On Wednesday, the number of COVID-19 patients actually increased, a rarity since July. Adjusting for the weekly cycle that tends to show more hospitalizations mid-week than on weekends, the trend of hospitalizations is now nearly flat.

In some big counties, including Orange, Polk, Volusia and Pasco, hospitalizations have been increasing for several days already.

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In Pasco, here’s what that looks like: on Wednesday, Sept. 9, there were 35 people in county hospitals primarily diagnosed with COVID-19, after constant improvement from a peak of more than 130 in July. A week later, it was down to 27. But now, this Wednesday, it was back up to 39.

Miami-Dade County provides another, related count, of how many people are newly admitted to hospitals with COVID-19 each day. That number also ticked up Monday and remained flat for two days after that, the first such interruption in the county’s steady decrease since July. Thursday, however, showed improvement again.

The numbers of Floridians testing positive for the coronavirus and falling ill are not skyrocketing, by any means. Yet the pattern of the last month has been of the state’s progress slowing. If that trend continues, the state could be at a turning point.

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