ORLANDO — The highly contagious COVID-19 variant first detected in the United Kingdom is likely more widespread in Florida than publicly released data would suggest, while homegrown mutations of the virus have probably already produced other, more infectious strains here, the latest White House Coronavirus Task Force report warns.
The report, dated Jan. 17 but just released from Florida Department of Health, recommends Floridians take action now — “before an increase in hospitalizations is seen” — including a campaign with retailers reminding customers to wear masks and “substantially” curtailing or closing public indoor spaces where masks can’t be worn continually.
That includes bars, indoor dining and gyms, the report said.
That suggestion, though, is unlikely to gain traction. In late September, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis lifted restrictions on bars and restaurants that had required them to limit capacity. He has since threatened to intervene if local leaders try to restrict privately owned businesses.
“Just use common sense,” DeSantis said in December. “Let’s keep people employed.”
The report also shows the number of Floridians who died of the virus climbed 14 percent in the preceding week but that new infections fell 5 percent — evidence that the winter holiday surge may have reached its peak.
“We should not be reassured that we don’t yet have significant spread from imported, more transmissible variants as early evidence may underestimate the current spread,” notes the report, the final weekly state-by-state recommendations issued by the Trump administration’s panel of experts. “We are likely to have our own, more transmissible variants. ... We should act as though we have more transmissible strains circulating.”
Dr. Vincent Hsu, an epidemiologist and AdventHealth’s infection control officer, said only a small fraction of all coronavirus cases are selected for the genomic sequence analysis that reveals whether someone is being sickened by the original COVID-19 strain or a more-recent mutation.
So the number of cases confirmed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he said, is only a subset.
On Friday, the CDC reported 50 known cases of the COVID-19 variant in Florida, more than a quarter of the nation’s total, second only to California’s 72 and more than twice that of New York’s 22. Neither the federal government nor the Florida Department of Health have responded to questions about the percentage of cases that are tested for the variant.
“Almost undoubtedly, the fact that we have (50 cases) identified in Florida means that there are many more circulating that we don’t know about,” Hsu said. “We have to assume that there is significant transmission in Florida of this strain.”
The nonprofit hospital chain is trying to increase testing of its own patient infections to determine the extent of the spread, he added.
In mid-December, the United Kingdom reported a variant that has since become the dominant version of the virus there. Symptoms and outcomes appear identical, and newly developed vaccines are reported to be equally effective against the variant. But because it is significantly more contagious, the U.K. variant is projected to become the dominant strain in the U.S. in March, according to a CDC report published Friday.
One of the challenges, though, is that more than half of infections are from people who show no outward symptoms of the virus, the task force noted.
“Personal gatherings across families and friends indoors are key viral-spreading events,” the task force report said. “Continuous messaging of this risk to change behavior and of the importance of indoor masking is essential. Miami was unable to control the summer surge without changing this behavior.”
Other findings from the task force include:
84% of Florida counties have high levels of community transmission, putting them in the CDC’s red zone. Orange County ranked third, behind Miami-Dade and Broward, for the number of new cases in the preceding three weeks.
During the week of Jan. 4 to Jan. 10, nearly a third of Florida nursing homes had at least one new resident COVID-19 case, 63% had at least one new staff COVID-19 case, and 9% had at least one new resident COVID-19 death.
From Jan. 9 to Jan. 15, on average, 1,117 patients with confirmed COVID-19 and 305 patients with suspected COVID-19 were reported as newly admitted each day to hospitals in Florida. This is a decrease of 5% in total new COVID-19 hospital admissions.
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