Florida passes 51,000 COVID deaths as vaccination rate drops

The Sunshine State reaches a grim pandemic milestone while COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to fall.
Wenderson Cerisene, 7, right, and his sister Dorah, 9, wait to get tested for COVID-19 on Aug. 31, 2021 in North Miami as Florida schools saw a rise in cases forcing of students and teachers to quarantine. Florida has now surpassed 51,000 COVID-related deaths.
Wenderson Cerisene, 7, right, and his sister Dorah, 9, wait to get tested for COVID-19 on Aug. 31, 2021 in North Miami as Florida schools saw a rise in cases forcing of students and teachers to quarantine. Florida has now surpassed 51,000 COVID-related deaths. [ MARTA LAVANDIER | AP ]
Published Sept. 17, 2021|Updated Sept. 17, 2021

Florida surpassed 51,000 COVID-related deaths this week.

The state hit a new high with 2,468 fatalities added this week as the delta variant continues to drive the deadliest phase yet of the 18-month pandemic. Due to delays in processing death records, many of the newly reported deaths occurred days or weeks ago.

If Florida were its own country, its 51,240 fatalities would rank 20th in the world, exceeding Chile’s 37,293 deaths. The Sunshine State now has 3.5 million infections — almost as many as Mexico, which has nearly six times the population.

“I think it’s been a really tough year and a half,” said Gov. Ron DeSantis when a reporter asked him about Florida passing the 50,000 mark at a Thursday news conference in Fort Lauderdale.

Related: U.S. panel backs Pfizer COVID boosters only for elderly, high-risk

University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi said the number of COVID-19 deaths is striking given the availability of a vaccine that has proven highly effective at preventing hospitalizations and death.

Florida’s high proportion of elderly residents, the age group most vulnerable to the virus, has undoubtedly contributed to the state’s death toll, he said. The high number of unvaccinated residents has also proved deadly.

The state distributed just over 335,000 doses of vaccine this week, a 27 percent drop in just two weeks and the lowest vaccination numbers since early August.

Now 70 percent of residents aged 12 and up are at least partially vaccinated as the Sunshine State crawled over the benchmark the Biden administration hoped the nation’s adults would reach on July 4, more than two months ago.

“A large proportion of these deaths were preventable if we were able to get more people vaccinated and bear down on those mitigating strategies,” Salemi said. “That’s what’s really, really sad.”

Related: St. Petersburg to require COVID vaccinations for new city employees

The grim milestone comes despite cases and hospitalizations continuing to decline from their highest peaks thus far in the pandemic.

Florida recorded 75,906 new infections this week, a 24 percent drop from the week before. At around 11,000 new cases per day, it’s about half the daily infection rate seen at the peak of the delta-fueled wave.

New case positivity remains above 11 percent, and infections are around the same level as the peak of the first coronavirus wave last summer.

Still, Salemi sees evidence that cases will continue to fall and, eventually, the number of deaths will also start to decline.

Related: Pinellas considers $750 incentive for employees in vaccine push

“This is in many ways a positive sign to see cases are down to pretty much 50 percent from where we were and we’re seeing a decrease in every single age group,” he said.

Ages 12-to-19 continue to lead all Florida age groups with a 15 percent positivity rate. Children 12 and under have a 12 percent positivity rate. Both rates declined since last week.

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Two more child deaths were also recorded. A total of 19 children ages 16 and under have died from the coronavirus — a number that has nearly doubled in five weeks.

Florida hospitals had 9,256 confirmed COVID-19 patients as of Friday, including 134 pediatric patients. It’s a more than 20 percent drop from the week before for both adults and pediatric patients.

This marks the first time COVID hospitalizations in the state have dropped below 10,000 since July 30.

The number of COVID patients has fallen in local hospitals too, leading some to begin shifting doctors, nurses and beds called into emergency duty back to other uses.

BayCare reported 728 COVID admissions at its 15 Tampa Bay region hospitals as of Friday afternoon. That’s still more than the July 2020 peak of 700 but down more than 400 patients from Aug. 26.

Related: DeSantis pledges to ‘fight like hell’ over COVID-19 treatment

AdventHealth this week announced it would resume some elective surgeries at seven local hospitals in its West Florida division. It has more than 400 COVID patients but that is down roughly 200 from this time last month, said spokesperson Ashley Jeffrey.

Tampa General Hospital reported having 141 COVID patients as of Friday, down from a peak of about 250. It’s ICU has 55 COVID patients.

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