Coronavirus cases have tripled in the past two weeks in Florida and there’s no sign the resurgent pandemic will slow down.
There were 73,119 new infections reported between July 16 and Thursday, according to the latest seven-day report released by the state on Friday. That’s an average of more than 10,000 infections per day, a number not seen since early February.
It’s also the highest increase in cases since the first wave of infections in June 2020.
Florida’s positivity has doubled in the same time, going from 7.8 percent to 15.1 percent in the span of two weeks.
Hospitalizations have also doubled in the past two weeks to nearly 800 confirmed admission every day, on average. Deaths have followed, increasing by 64 percent over the same time span, but still remain far below levels seen at the peak of the pandemic.
At the same time, weekly vaccination rates continue to drop as new patients become harder and harder to reach. The number of first-time vaccine recipients fell to just over 100,000, the lowest since June.
As the pandemic takes another turn for the worse, Florida health experts are struggling with infrequent and incomplete data releases from the state. The state stopped reporting daily COVID-19 infection and vaccination data on June 3. Instead, it sends out weekly reports every Friday, the latest one coming out at 5:31 p.m.
“Doing this weekly report just leaves you completely in the dark about what’s going on,” said University of Florida epidemiologist Cindy Prins. “And then on Friday, all of a sudden, like, boom, you get this surprise number.”
Florida limits COVID data
The Florida Department of Health also stopped sharing key demographic data points with the public, such as hospitalizations, infections in nursing homes, and county level infections and vaccinations by race, age and gender. At that time, health officials said this change reflected a new phase of the pandemic as cases fell.
“COVID-19 cases have significantly decreased over the past year as we have a less than 5 percent positivity rate, and our state is returning to normal, with vaccines widely available throughout Florida,” Gov. Ron DeSantis’ press secretary Christina Pushaw said in a June 3 email announcing the change.
Experts believe the state should consider sharing more data more frequently. Rampant spread of the delta variant in Florida, where nearly one-third of residents remain unvaccinated, means that any delay in data could have profound repercussions, said Beth Blauer, executive director of the Centers for Civic Impact at John Hopkins.
“We are at a moment where we’re seeing an exponential increase in cases where the impact of decision making over days could have a significant impact on our ability to do disease control,” said Blauer.
There are no plans for the state to return to daily COVID-19 reports, Pushaw wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times sent earlier Friday.
“Anyone who is worried about COVID should get vaccinated,” she said. “The data shows us that vaccination is very effective at preventing serious illness.”
The state also stopped sharing data on COVID-19 cases at individual long-term care facilities. The Department of Health removed that data from its COVID-19 reports in May. Officials did not respond to questions from the Times about whether it would resume publishing that data or share the vaccination rates in those facilities.
Data drives decisions
There is precedence for states to increase their reporting as cases increase. Alabama recently reverted to publishing updates three times a week after weekly cases increased by over 1,000 percent in the past month.
“I think daily data is critically important,” said Blauer, “for public trust in the process, for that kind of independent decision making that happens in families.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does provide some daily data that the state previously reported, like cases and deaths. But the CDC data is “significantly hamstrung,” Blauer said. Deaths and cases reported by the CDC require extra steps of validation and certification that many states do not require when tallying their numbers.
“That’s going to create a significant lag if you’re relying on CDC reporting,” Blauer said. “So there’s some really significant value in seeing what the states are looking at.”
Day-to-day changes are often driven by when laboratories report results, said Mary Jo Trepka, an epidemiologist at the University of Miami, which is why she prefers weekly data.
She is more concerned with the localized demographic data that the state stopped reporting in June. County-level reporting from the state no longer reports the race, gender, or age of cases or vaccinations.
This data is critical for local groups to target areas or types of people who are under-vaccinated, Trepka said.
Knowing the age breakdown will be especially important to help convince parents to vaccinate their teenagers before returning to school in the fall, Trepka said.
“It’s going to be helpful for them to see how likely is it that the other kids in my child’s classroom are vaccinated,” she said. “You can’t answer those questions if you don’t have quality data.”
Hospital beds fill up
Tampa General Hospital reports 76 COVID-19 patients as of Friday. That’s more than double the number of patients from last week and five times the number of patients from three weeks ago, said Dr. Jason Wilson, medical director of the emergency department.
He blames a combination of the highly transmissible delta variant and unvaccinated young people. The average age of Tampa General’s coronavirus patients is 43, Wilson said, and 90 percent of them are unvaccinated.
“If this current delta version runs out, we’re going to have another strain,” Wilson said. “We need to get those vaccine numbers up so we can stop having this conversation.”
Most vaccinated people who get infected experience mild symptoms and are less likely to transmit the virus when compared to the unvaccinated, Wilson said. Almost all of his hospital’s COVID-19 patients who are on ventilators are unvaccinated.
The AdventHealth hospital system says its number of infected patients has quadrupled in recent weeks. Nearly 95 percent of them are unvaccinated, said AdventHealth West Florida Division spokesperson Richelle Hoenes.
COVID-19 cases doubled in BayCare’s 15 West Florida hospitals in the two weeks after the Fourth of July holiday, said hospital spokesperson Lisa Razler.
“The reality is that I see a lot of people get sick from COVID, but I haven’t seen people come in with serious side effects from the vaccine,” Wilson said. “I haven’t seen anything bad happen to anyone for getting the vaccine.”
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