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Omicron variant may already be in Florida. What happens next?

“Sitting back and doing nothing is really unconscionable.”
Jonathan Pagliarulo, 11, gets tested for COVID-19 in August after vaccinated family members tested positive for the virus in North Miami.
Jonathan Pagliarulo, 11, gets tested for COVID-19 in August after vaccinated family members tested positive for the virus in North Miami. [ MARTA LAVANDIER | AP ]
Published Nov. 30, 2021
Updated Dec. 1, 2021

If the omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus isn’t already in Florida, it will be soon. And the time to prepare is now, warn health experts across the state and country.

There were no reported cases of the variant in the U.S. as of Tuesday, but France and Japan say the variant has been detected in their nations. The Netherlands says it discovered the omicron variant a week before South Africa reported its existence. It has also been detected in Botswana and in travelers in 17 other countries, including Canada and Germany.

The variant is so new that there is still little data on how quickly it spreads or how much existing vaccines protect against it. But its rapid transmission across international borders led the World Health Organization to declare earlier this week that it poses a “very high” global risk.

Health experts in Florida are equally concerned and said even while there is still much to learn about the variant, the state should prepare for the worst.

Based on the global spread of the omicron variant it is almost certainly already in the U.S., said University of Florida biostatistician Ira Longini Jr., “and probably even in Florida by now.”

“The main thing is not to panic,” Longini said. “It’s just something that needs to be dealt with in a measured, deliberate way. But sitting back and doing nothing is really unconscionable.”

Related: Florida COVID cases fell Thanksgiving week, but so did vaccinations

And while Florida has enjoyed a respite from rapid transmission rates of COVID, it still has roughly 7 million unvaccinated residents leaving it vulnerable to further surges.

Florida has fully vaccinated 61.3 percent of its total population as of Tuesday, but at least 15 counties have vaccinated less than 40 percent of residents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The high priority is to vaccinate unvaccinated people,” Longini said.

That’s because as the coronavirus spreads — especially through unvaccinated populations — the greater the chance it could mutate. South Africa, which first identified the omicron variant, has fully vaccinated 25 percent of its residents, according to the New York Times COVID Tracking Project.

The job of sounding the alarm when the variant arrives in the Sunshine State falls to the Florida Department of Health. The Tampa Bay Times asked the agency whether the state is ramping up efforts to test for the variant or vaccinate more Floridians. The department issued this response:

“Florida stands ready to mitigate COVID-19 through prevention and treatment, rather than focusing on one solution,” the statement said. “As we have done with previous variants of concern, the State of Florida will adapt and respond as necessary to protect public health.

“The state continues to operate monoclonal antibody treatment sites and ensure accessibility statewide by allocating doses of monoclonal antibodies to ensure inventory levels meet county demand.”

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State officials say that as of Tuesday, the omicron variant has not been detected in Florida.

Related: A winter COVID wave could come to Florida, but holiday precautions could help prevent one

In a press briefing about the new variant held Monday, President Joe Biden promised that the county will not return to pandemic restrictions.

“I expect this not to be the new normal, I expect everyone to be vaccinated,” he said. “If people get vaccinated and wear the mask, there is no need for a lockdown.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who opposes mask and vaccine mandates, reiterated his opposition to any restrictions at a Monday news conference.

”We are not in Florida going to allow any media-driven hysteria to do anything to infringe people’s individual freedoms when it comes to any type of COVID variants,” he said.

Vaccines and detection

It’s too early to tell how the antibodies in vaccinated individuals will work against the new variant. Pfizer said it will take about two weeks before they know how well their vaccine works against omicron, and a vaccine tailored for that variant could be ready in less than 100 days.

Of particular concern to scientists is that omicron includes over 50 mutations from earlier variants of the virus, including more than 30 mutations of the spike protein that allow the virus to attach to and infect cells in the body.

That could affect how well the immune system can detect and neutralize the virus, said University of South Florida immunologist Michael Teng.

Think of the spike as a lock, and antibodies as a master key, he said. “If there are small variations in the lock, the master key still works,” he said, “but if it’s a completely different set of pins, then your key doesn’t work anymore.”

Transmission of the coronavirus depends on the virus’s ability to replicate and its ability to evade the immune system, said Teng. “What we don’t know is what the combination of these two factors looks like for the new omicron variant.”

Related: How bad are COVID booster side effects? And answers to other vaccine booster questions.

The only way to tell when a positive test for the coronavirus is the result of the omicron variant is through genomic sequencing of test material like mucus. The U.S. currently sequences only 3.6 percent of samples, according to a Washington Post analysis.

With currently available resources, “we could get that up to 5 percent,” said Teng. “But that means you’re still missing a lot of samples.”

Once the virus does arrive in Florida, steps will need to be taken quickly to slow the spread of the new variant. “If we figure out where the virus is spreading,” Longini said, “we can slow it down with contact tracing, isolating cases and quarantining close contacts.”

Hospitals get ready

After more than 20 months treating patients, local hospitals await more information about the new variant.

Dr. Allison Messina, chief of the division of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, said her hospital already is on the lookout for any increase in cases. Based on the little they now know, she said it’s likely the variant has already infected people in Florida.

The chief concern for hospitals will be how quickly the virus spreads and how likely it is to result in severe symptoms that require hospitalization.

“If it’s very transmissible like delta was, that’s a bad sign " Messina said.

Florida hospitals have spent more than 20 months treating COVID patients, and were overwhelmed during the recent delta wave. Messina says her hospital is currently treating a handful of patients. But, she said, the new variant could quickly change that if it brings another surge of cases.

“We don’t want to see that as we’re gearing up for flu season so the timing would be bad,” Messina said.

Related: Florida COVID vaccine rules make it easy for workers to opt out, experts say

While President Biden and Gov. DeSantis both dismissed enacting pandemic restrictions to contain the omicron variant, Longini said it’s too early to make such promises: “Lockdowns are very unpopular ... but it was probably a mistake to take them off the table.”

Before the delta variant ran rampant through Florida, state lawmakers restricted the ability of local governments to impose restrictions such as mask mandates. The state did not ramp up vaccination or testing efforts during the wave, either.

Nearly 1.4 million Floridians were infected with the coronavirus since June 18 and more than 23,000 died. That means more than a third of Florida’s 61,000 COVID deaths took place during the 5½-month delta wave, while vaccines were readily available.

“With delta we watched what happened in India and other countries, and then the same thing happened in Florida, the epidemic curve was almost the same,” Longini said. “We should know by now that we really need to put control measures in place as rapidly as possible before the wave builds.

“The consequences of the worst case scenario are too great. We can’t wait and see what happens, we need to act now.”

Times staff writer Allison Ross contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story was updated with a statement from the Florida Department of Health. The full statement is below.

• • •

Statement from the Florida Department of Health:

Public health surveillance and controlling the spread of infectious diseases have always been core functions of the Florida Department of Health.

CDC is the lead agency for all variant surveillance in the United States, and they will distribute any updates on the Omicron variant. Since the pandemic’s beginning, the department has conducted sequencing efforts and maintains surveillance of emerging variants in Florida. As of November 30, 2021, the CDC has not detected Omicron within the United States.

Florida stands ready to mitigate COVID-19 through prevention and treatment, rather than focusing on one solution. As we have done with previous variants of concern, the State of Florida will adapt and respond as necessary to protect public health.

The state continues to operate monoclonal antibody treatment sites and ensure accessibility statewide by allocating doses of monoclonal antibodies to ensure inventory levels meet county demand.

Monoclonal antibody therapy treatment locations can be found at FloridaHealthCOVID19.gov and by using the National Infusion Center Association’s treatment locator at covid.infusioncenter.org

The COVID-19 vaccine effectively prevents severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths based on all currently available data. As of November 25, 2021, 69 percent of eligible Floridians chose to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and the state currently has one of the lowest case rates in the nation. Floridians can find a vaccine at FloridaHealthCOVID19.gov.

• • •

How to get vaccinated

The COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 and up and booster shots for eligible recipients are being administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination sites. Many allow appointments to be booked online. Here’s how to find a site near you:

Find a site: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your zip code.

More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline.

Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.

TTY: 888-720-7489

Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.

• • •

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