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Florida COVID-19 cases rising fast among seniors, nursing home residents

Numbers show rapid spread in regions home to elderly.
Deborah Thompson waits for patients at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing operation at the Mahaffey Theater parking garage in downtown St. Petersburg on Aug. 1.
Deborah Thompson waits for patients at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing operation at the Mahaffey Theater parking garage in downtown St. Petersburg on Aug. 1. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 24, 2020

Florida is stuck with an intensifying pandemic, as the coronavirus infects more and more people, sickening hundreds of them every day before they can get a vaccine.

The number of new cases continues to rise and has skyrocketed in the past two weeks among seniors and residents of long-term care facilities.

There are more COVID-19 patients hospitalized now than there have been at any point since mid-August, and that number has grown steadily for two months straight.

So far, trends in hospitalization and death numbers have lagged behind that of cases in young adults. So the pandemic will likely get even worse until young adult cases — which continue their steady climb — reverse course, or lots and lots of Floridians are vaccinated.

With increased testing, case numbers have nearly reached their summer peak level. In the week ending Wednesday, more than 11,300 people tested positive each day, on average. Numbers were higher than that only for a period of about four days in July.

For some age groups, including those between 65 and 85, new cases have already eclipsed their summer peaks. But that doesn’t mean the state is faring as badly as it was in mid-July: Hospitalization numbers are still less than 60 percent of their peak, while case numbers in the recent past are much higher than that.

Intensive-care units in Florida’s hospitals are about 81 percent full, after a sharp, steady rise since the beginning of December. At the peak in July, that number was 84 percent. Of course, that’s statewide — some regions inevitably run out of room before others. According to Department of Health and Human Services data collected by the New York Times, ICUs in hospitals serving Tallahassee, Port Charlotte and Cape Coral have been almost entirely full for the past week.

Locally, there have been steep spikes in the number of COVID-19 patients in Hillsborough and Pasco counties and a steady rise in Pinellas.

Particularly in the past two weeks, there are troubling signs of rapid spread among vulnerable Floridians. New daily cases in people 85 years and older have jumped by 65 percent since Thanksgiving weekend, three times as fast as the rise in cases overall.

There’s also a spike in cases in residents of long-term care facilities, like nursing homes, a surge that has alarmed advocates. Cases had stagnated from mid-November through early December, but have jumped from 1,500 active cases to more than 2,300 in just two weeks. (New cases in the general population also slowed around Thanksgiving; holidays often lead to quirky data.)

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Florida’s oldest counties are seeing bad spikes now. New case numbers in Sumter County, home of the retirement mecca The Villages, are nearly twice as high as in the summer. The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients there has doubled since the beginning of the month, a meteoric rise.

Charlotte County, the state’s second-oldest, went from about 40 COVID-19 patients around Thanksgiving to more than 90 right now. Charlotte now ranks third-highest among Florida’s 67 counties in people hospitalized per capita.

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