Florida’s fever may have finally broken.
New COVID-19 infections continue to fall, dropping to about 8,000 cases per day. And for the first time in 10 weeks, the number of coronavirus deaths has fallen.
Infections in Florida fell to 56,325 over the most recent seven-day period of Sept. 17-23. That’s about 8,000 cases per day, according to data released by the state on Friday. It’s the lowest weekly infection rate in the state since early July.
The state reported 2,340 new COVID deaths, 128 fewer than the previous week. New case positivity also fell to 8.6 percent.
A total of 3,539,272 Floridians have been infected and 53,580 have died over the course of the pandemic, which is about to enter its 19th month. But 42 percent of infections and 37 percent of deaths have occurred since April 5, when the vaccine became available to everyone ages 12 and up.
University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi said he expected deaths — which typically lag weeks behind infections — would eventually peak and then decline as they have in other countries that experienced a surge in delta variant cases. But he cautioned that no one should be dropping their guard.
“Reported deaths will start falling off the cliff very steeply,” he said. “I do feel comfortable saying clearly the worst is behind us from the delta surge but it may not be from COVID. We don’t know what’s coming up (next).”
The Florida Department of Health stopped releasing daily pandemic data in June. It now only releases a weekly report every Friday after 5 p.m., and withholds information that was once available to the public.
The number of hospitalized Floridians also continues to drop with 7,113 confirmed COVID patients as of Friday, including 121 pediatric patients, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s down 20 percent since a week ago and nearly 60 percent fewer than at their peak in August
Still, one in five Florida hospitals reported a critical staffing shortage on Friday, and a similar number expect that situation will continue into the coming week.
The delta variant-fueled wave of infection continues to predominantly affect younger Floridians. More than 27 percent of the week’s infections were under 20 years old. Nearly 9,000 new infections were 11 years old or younger, an age group that is not yet eligible for vaccination.
Children and young adults have maintained the highest infection rates in the state for seven weeks in a row.
The pediatric patients at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg are almost exclusively unvaccinated, said Dr. Joseph Perno, the hospital’s vice president of medical affairs.
Children aged 5 to 11 years may soon be eligible for vaccination. Pfizer announced Monday that its two-part mRNA vaccine is safe and highly effective in young children. The company said it plans to apply to the Food and Drug Administration by the end of this month for emergency use authorization, which would allow younger children to finally get vaccinated. Trial results for children under 5 won’t be available until later this year, according to Prizer senior vice president Dr. Bill Gruber.
The federal government on Friday also finalized recommendations for who should receive Pfizer boosters: Those ages 65 and older, residents in long-term care, people with underlying health conditions and those at high risk of getting infected, such as health care workers and prisoners. They should get the extra dose six months after their last shot. However, officials have yet to say whether users of the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines will need boosters.
In the meantime, experts stress the importance of wearing masks for anyone who is not completely vaccinated.
Three studies released this week by the CDC show just how effective universal mask mandates can be. Schools in Arizona without a mask requirement were 3.5 times more likely to have an outbreak. Nationally, counties that require masks in schools had half the number of pediatric COVID cases as schools without a mask requirement.
“This just reinforces what we know,” said Perno.
“We had a relatively successful year last year in schools with masks,” he said. “And we’ve seen the exact opposite this year with not as strict mask mandates.”
Masks are required in Hillsborough County public schools, but are optional in Pasco and Pinellas. Hernando County schools require masks for students and staff, but students can opt out with parental approval.
Earlier this week, Florida’s new surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, signed new rules allowing parents to decide whether students should be allowed to attend school after being exposed to COVID-19. Students would be allowed back in the classroom as long as they were asymptomatic.
Ladapo said that it’s important to “respect the rights of parents” and that the policy of quarantining all exposed children has not shown to reduce cases.
The CDC says people who are infected with the coronavirus can spread the virus for two days before showing any symptoms. The agency recommends that unvaccinated students quarantine for 14 days, or seven days if they test negative.
The new policy risks overwhelming already inundated hospitals with more sick children, said Perno. “We understand the importance of being in school,” he said, “(but) the CDC is who we should be following.”
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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage
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