More Floridians are contracting COVID-19 and filling hospital beds than at any point since the pandemic started 17 months ago.
The state recorded 134,506 cases between July 30 and Aug 5, according to data released Friday by the Florida Department of Health.
That’s an average of more than 19,000 cases every day — the highest infection rate in a single week since the start of the pandemic. Adjusted for population, only Louisiana had a higher infection rate last week.
Florida hospitalizations also reached their highest point in the pandemic this week, with over 12,864 confirmed COVID-19 cases in hospitals as of Friday, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
As hospitals fill up, the rate of admissions hasn’t slowed. In the past seven days, an average of nearly 1,800 confirmed COVID-19 patients were admitted to state hospitals every day.
Florida recorded 616 deaths in the past week, over 60 percent of which were seniors over 65.
The Sunshine State now has one out of every five infections, hospitalizations and deaths in the U.S. as the contagious delta variant runs rampant.
Meanwhile half of the state’s total population remained unvaccinated. And the delta variant will have more opportunities to spread when school resumes this coming week while kids 11 and under still can’t get vaccinated.
University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi said Florida’s latest infection and hospitalization numbers are both shocking but also predictable given how infectious the delta variant has proven, and that the state largely reopened for business despite having 11 million unvaccinated residents.
“It’s disappointing to see us here especially when we have such a great supply of vaccines and a good degree of control over how bad the pandemic is,” he said. “The writing has been on the wall for the past two months.”
Deaths in Florida are still at less than half the peak during the first two waves of infection in summer and winter last year. But, having nearly tripled in four weeks, the death rate is climbing faster than many public health experts expected.
“By the time you see deaths rise, we’re long past the point of mitigation having any impact whatsoever,” the governor’s spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, wrote in a Thursday email to the Tampa Bay Times.
“Ergo, taking new actions due to the delayed reporting of deaths — an artifact of the past — would be a trivial exercise,” she wrote.
The Times asked public health experts to weigh in on Pushaw’s statement.
Deaths typically lag infection by two to eight weeks, according to a Harvard study. Meaning that the peak fatalities may not come until long after new infections have abated. But with infections increasing each week, University of Florida epidemiologist Thomas Hladish said the state may not have reached the peak yet.
“We’re still at the point where actions matter,” he said. “Even if the peak has passed, you can still do things to prevent further infections.
“And at the risk of stating the obvious, half of people get infected after the peak.”
State officials have access to the data that shows the infections that will lead to more deaths — more so than the public. The Department of Health stopped releasing daily COVID-19 data on June 3. Instead, it sends out weekly reports every Friday, but omits demographic data points such as hospitalizations, nursing home infections, county-level infections and the age, race and gender of who’s been vaccinated.
“It seems pretty nonsensical to me,” said University of Florida epidemiologist Derek Cummings in reference to Pushaw’s statement. “It’s basically saying, when we don’t have the data, it’s not that bad; and then when we have the data that says it’s bad, it’s too late to act.”
The way to mitigate that delay, Cummings said, is to emphasize good and timely data: “It really begs the question: Why are we not really prioritizing reducing reporting delays, rather than, let’s say, gathering together case reports and reporting them once a week?”
Tampa Bay cases surging
There were 18,458 infections in four Tampa Bay counties last week, according to the state’s weekly report.
The positivity rate in Hillsborough hit 22.8 percent, Pinellas reached 18 percent, Pasco was 24.3 percent and Hernando was 27.2 percent. The World Health Organization recommends that states maintain a positivity rate of 5 percent or less for at least two weeks before lifting pandemic restrictions.
However, no such restrictions exist anymore and local governments cannot enact any. In May, DeSantis issued an executive order ending all existing local orders mandating masks indoors and social distancing. The Legislature also restricted the ability of local governments to issue emergency orders. Last week the governor issued an executive order seeking to ban school mask mandates, but some districts are pushing back.
In response to the COVID-19 surge, this week a number of Tampa Bay hospitals suspended some elective surgeries and restricted patient visits.
BayCare is limiting patient visits to one masked visitor a day and suspended elective surgeries at six of its Hillsborough County hospitals as its number of COVID-19 admissions topped more than 800 patients. That’s well above the previous peak of 702 in July 2020, before vaccines became available.
AdventHealth postponed non-emergency elective procedures that require an overnight stay at some of its hospitals. COVID-19 admissions at West Florida Division hospitals exceeded 300 this week, more than at any time since the pandemic began.
The company’s Tampa Chief Medical Officer Doug Ross said about 94 percent of those are unvaccinated. Many of those are younger than the patients who made up the bulk of the hospitalizations in the first COVID-19 wave in the early summer of 2020, he said.
Some patients express regret at not getting vaccinated, he said. Already infected, it’s too late for a vaccine.
“Everyone is fearful when they get the diagnosis of COVID,” he said. “The worsening of the disease is always looming in people’s minds; it’s hard to predict who’s going to do well and who isn’t.”
Hospitals have gotten better at treating COVID-19 with steroids, monoclonal antibodies and other treatments, Ross said. He feels that the mortality rate is lower than during last year’s surge but warned that it’s still “significant.”
Ross called on Florida residents to take more responsibility for mask-wearing and social distancing to try and stem the rise of cases so hospitals are not overwhelmed.
“We need to decrease the speed at which the virus is spreading,” he said. “Health care is being stressed as we speak — any increase in numbers will stress it even more.”
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