Florida leads nation in coronavirus infections in 2020-like surge

Nearly one-in-five of the nation’s new COVID-19 infections comes from Florida, according to the White House.
Early July 2021 saw a week-to-week growth rate that's the highest Florida has seen since the first wave of COVID-19 infections in June 2020, around when Daniela St. Gerard (above) was conducting COVID-19 tests in St. Petersburg.
Early July 2021 saw a week-to-week growth rate that's the highest Florida has seen since the first wave of COVID-19 infections in June 2020, around when Daniela St. Gerard (above) was conducting COVID-19 tests in St. Petersburg. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published July 16, 2021|Updated July 17, 2021

The coronavirus is surging in Florida in ways not seen since the pandemic summer of 2020.

The Florida Department of Health reported 45,604 new COVID-19 infections over the seven-day period between July 9 and July 15. That’s an average of over 6,500 new infections every day.

The number of new cases in Florida has nearly doubled in the past seven days, according to the weekly report released Friday. Last week, the state reported 23,697 cases from the previous seven-day period.

That week-to-week growth rate is the highest the state has seen since the first wave of COVID-19 infections in June 2020.

The state has not seen this level of infection since April, when Florida’s third wave peaked at 5,756 cases per day. Since that peak, cases in Florida had been generally falling until case counts picked back up three weeks ago.

“The numbers are going up faster than any time I’ve ever seen since I started doing calculations back in June 2020,” said Dr. Tom Unnasch, a public health professor at the University of South Florida.

Related: Q&A: Why are a small number of vaccinated people catching COVID-19?

Florida is helping drive a national surge. U.S. coronavirus infections have tripled over the past three weeks, according to the Associated Press, and hospitalizations and deaths are rising among the unvaccinated.

Nearly one-in-five of the nation’s new COVID-19 infections is from Florida, White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients said at a briefing.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will not impose any restrictions to slow the virus, press secretary Christina Pushaw wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

”Governor DeSantis has ruled out COVID lockdowns and mask mandates,” she said, noting that Florida’s COVID-19 death rate has been lower than the national average while imposing fewer restrictions. “The key to Florida’s success has been protecting the most vulnerable, i.e. seniors and residents of long term care facilities.”

It is the unvaccinated who are bearing the brunt of the pandemic. The state noted vaccinated people made up less than 6 percent of the coronavirus cases diagnosed in the past month.

“Most people who experience serious COVID complications and/or are hospitalized, are unvaccinated,” Pushaw said. “With vaccines being freely available all over the state, Floridians are encouraged to get vaccinated if they have not done so already.

“COVID vaccination will always be a free choice and never mandated, however.”

Nurse Joy Brockert gives Andrew Ranger, 30, of Palm Harbor, a vaccination card before administering a COVID-19 vaccine dose during "Shots on Ice" a Lightning vaccination event at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Thursday, June 24, 2021.
Nurse Joy Brockert gives Andrew Ranger, 30, of Palm Harbor, a vaccination card before administering a COVID-19 vaccine dose during "Shots on Ice" a Lightning vaccination event at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Thursday, June 24, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Florida leads the U.S.

Florida leads the nation in new COVID-19 cases, more than any other state, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When accounting for population size, Florida was third in cases per capita this past week, behind Arkansas and Missouri.

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Florida also led the country in hospitalizations, with 3,652 confirmed COVID-19 admissions from July 7 to July 14, according to CDC data. That’s nearly 19 percent of the 19,520 admissions nationwide.

The state also saw 230 fatalities related to COVID-19 last week. That is more than 15 percent of the 1,505 deaths across the United States.

Yet Florida is in the middle of the pack of states when it comes to vaccinations, with 63.3 percent of eligible residents having received one dose. The percentage of fully vaccinated Floridians ages 12 and up stands at 54.4 percent.

“COVID-19 is about as infectious now as smallpox and whooping cough,” said Unnasch, the USF expert, “which is a really scarily infectious virus.”

CDC estimates that the delta variant accounts for 57.6 percent of new cases nationwide, as of July 3. In Florida, 13.4 percent of new cases as of June 19 are delta variant cases.

The governor’s spokesperson said DeSantis expected an increase in infections.

“He said in several interviews in May/June that he anticipated cases rising in Florida and other southern states in the summer, as there was a seasonal increase last summer in these states,” Pushaw said. “But of course, we are fortunately in a very different place this year, with 85 (percent) of our most vulnerable residents (65+) being vaccinated and others having natural immunity.

“So, while cases are rising, the numbers are not comparable to last summer and there isn’t any danger of hospitals being overwhelmed.”

Bay area surging

Tampa Bay is helping drive Florida’s surge. The region added 7,701 cases last week, more than doubling the 3,364 cases seen the week before.

The largest rise was seen in Hillsborough County. Last week, it reported 1,227 new cases. This week, it was 2,918.

Pinellas County went from 569 new cases to 1,365; and Polk which went from 687 new cases to 1,424.

Hospitalizations have also spiked in the Tampa Bay area; increasing nearly 40 percent from 517 new admissions two weeks ago to 723 in the last seven days.

Tampa General Hospital currently has 40 COVID-19 patients, more than double the number of inpatients from two weeks ago, said a statement from Dr. Peggy Duggan, the hospital’s executive vice president and chief medical officer.

Nearly 90 percent of admitted COVID-19 patients have not been vaccinated, Duggan said, and every patient on a ventilator is unvaccinated. Most of the hospital’s coronavirus patients are ages 35 and 55.

“We strongly urge those who haven’t been vaccinated to be vaccinated and remain vigilant with safety precautions,” Duggan said. “The delta variant is highly contagious and 80 percent of our COVID cases in the last 10 days have the delta variant.”

Local officials noted they can no longer rely on past measures such as mask mandates and social distancing rules to slow infections. DeSantis signed a May 3 executive order suspending local mask mandates and other pandemic restrictions. The Legislature recently limited the duration of local emergency orders and gave the governor the authority to overrule them.

“Unfortunately, local governments are handcuffed by the governor,” Ben Kirby, the spokesman for St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, wrote in an email.

“Mayor Kriseman and everyone at the city is very concerned,” Kirby said. “We are monitoring the COVID-19 numbers closely.”

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mariella Smith says Florida should rely on scientific guidance, such as CDC guidelines, to deal with the pandemic and not allow politics to limit its options.

”We need to listen to the doctors and the medical experts and stop treating this like a political issue,” she said. “If they say we need to go back to masks, then we need to go back to masks. If they say you’re vaccinated you don’t need to wear a mask, then that’s what we do.”

Tampa Bay officials emphasized the only way left to stem the pandemic: Get vaccines into as many arms as possible.

“The best way to protect our community is to get more people vaccinated,” said an email from Adam Smith, the spokesman for Tampa Mayor Jane Castor.

He noted the city has partnered with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Lightning and Florida Aquarium to host vaccine clinics and reduce vaccine hesitancy among ages 18 to 24. He said Tampa has more than 50 vaccine locations in a 25-mile radius of downtown.

Getting vaccinated “is the right thing to do for your health,” said Tampa City Council member Luis Viera. “It’s the right thing to do for your community and it’s the right thing to do for your country.”

“The science is clear,” said St. Petersburg City Council member and mayoral candidate Darden Rice. “Getting vaccinated is the only way out of the pandemic.”

Times staff writer CT Bowen contributed to this report.

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