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Florida’s second COVID Christmas marred by 320% infection hike

The contagious omicron variant is likely driving a surge of more than 17,800 infections a day.
Masked and unmasked shoppers enter a Best Buy store as it opens Nov. 26 for Black Friday sales in Fort Lauderdale.
Masked and unmasked shoppers enter a Best Buy store as it opens Nov. 26 for Black Friday sales in Fort Lauderdale. [ AMY BETH BENNETT / SOUTH FLORIDA | Amy Beth Bennett ]
Published Dec. 25, 2021|Updated Dec. 25, 2021

The omicron variant is Florida’s unwelcome Christmas visitor, likely driving a 320 percent surge of COVID-19 cases in just one week.

The state on Christmas Eve reported 125,201 cases from Dec. 17-23, a daily average of more than 17,800 over the seven-day period. That’s the highest infection rate since early September, when the delta wave was cresting.

In just two weeks, Florida’s seven-day average has gone from 4,200 cases a week to 17,800, according to the data released Friday. The Sunshine State has already surpassed the 16,000 daily cases recorded at the peak of last year’s winter wave and could soon surpass the summer delta wave, which peaked at 25,000 daily cases.

The Florida Department of Health has not released any data that shows how much of the surge is driven by the omicron variant. But the fast-spreading mutant virus has repeated this pattern in South Africa and Great Britain and is now the dominant strain in the U.S., spreading to all 50 states in less than a month.

Florida should brace for yet another wave of infections, illness and some deaths, said University of Florida epidemiologist Cindy Prins.

“I think we’re in a surge already,” she said. “We know we have a lot of omicron in Florida, and it’s an aggressive variant as far as how much it spreads. It’s not a surprise for numbers to be very high this week.”

Related: Demand for COVID tests soars in Florida amid holiday gatherings and rise of omicron

Those numbers will likely continue to multiply as families travel to celebrate the holidays in larger groups — a factor that led to an increase in COVID-19 cases last Christmas. But the virus wasn’t as contagious then as it is now.

“It’s really tough timing for us,” Prins said. “As we go into another holiday and people were feeling safer and more protected with vaccines and the delta wave finally over.

“Omicron is (having) a major impact on us now.”

The variant’s impact could be felt across the world on Friday as more than 3,800 flights were canceled, according to the New York Times. More than 1,000 of those were in the U.S., as airlines canceled flights because of weather and crews falling ill.

The unprecedented spike in cases was driven by an increase in both the number of tests and positivity rates. Florida administered over 900,000 tests in the past week, up from nearly 550,000 tests the week before.

Those tests reveal that the state’s positivity rate rose to 13.8 percent, more than double the 5.3 percent rate from the week before.

Related: Why won’t Florida, CDC release state’s breakthrough COVID data?

First-time vaccinations and booster shots were both up ahead of the holiday season. Nearly 112,000 Floridians got their first dose of vaccine, up over 20,000 from the week before. But the already vaccinated continue to lead the way: Approximately 331,000 got a booster shot last week, up about 47,000 from last week.

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Boosters are key to protecting against omicron, according to the latest research, because the effectiveness of initial vaccinations can wane months later. The omicron variant has proven more effective at infecting vaccinated individuals than delta, likely because its more than two dozen mutations make it tougher for the body’s immune system to recognize.

While vaccines can still protect from serious illness and death, boosters can restore immunity and provide the most protection against omicron.

“A person can get infected but your immune system can clear it pretty quickly,” Prins said.

However, natural immunity from a previous infection will not be as effective against omicron — and the unvaccinated have no protection at all.

Everyone ages 16 and up is eligible to get a booster shot six months after they received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. Johnson & Johnson users should get a booster two months later. All children ages 5 to 15 are eligible to get vaccinated, and the sooner they do the more protected they’ll be against omicron.

Related: I got exposed to COVID. Here’s what I learned to do next.

The second Christmas of the pandemic reveals how much of a toll COVID-19 has taken on Florida this year, as vaccines that can prevent illness and death became readily available. More than 65 percent of the state’s 3.9 million infections and 62,342 deaths have occurred since last Christmas Eve.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida lawmakers have restricted local officials from imposing emergency rules that slowed the spread of the virus last year, such as mandating masks and social distancing. But Prins said Floridians can defend themselves and “up their mask game” by using N95 masks or double masking, wearing a medical mask under a cloth one.

The seven-day total of cases during the delta surge peaked at about 150,000. Prins expects that number will soon be surpassed. But the pattern of omicron infections in other countries suggests that the surge may be more short-lived than that of delta, which lasted more than two months.

“You get a sharp peak in cases but it’s also a shorter duration,” she said.

Related: Omicron could drive 40,000 COVID cases a day in Florida, UF model shows

The surge in infections has not yet resulted in a significant increase in the number of COVID-19 patients admitted at local hospitals.

The BayCare hospital system, which includes 15 facilities across Central Florida, reported about 100 COVID-19 patients, up about 25 in the past week. Most of them are unvaccinated and in the 30 to 50 age range, officials said.

Tampa General Hospital reported 29 admissions to its COVID-19 ward with nine patients in intensive care on Christmas Eve.

AdventHealth’s West Florida Division, which includes hospitals in seven counties, reported 75 COVID-19 patients as of Friday, far below the 650 it dealt with during the delta surge this summer.

Dr. Vincent Hsu, AdventHealth’s executive director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiologist, said the high number of hospitalizations seen in some Northeast states in the past two months is because they are still dealing with delta and, now, also omicron. He does not anticipate the newer variant will put the same burden on Florida hospitals.

“We had our very serious surge in August of this year,” he said. “I don’t expect we will see a surge quite like that.”

• • •

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.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

KIDS AND VACCINES: Got questions about vaccinating your kid? Here are some answers.

BOOSTER SHOTS: Confused about which COVID booster to get? This guide will help.

BOOSTER QUESTIONS: Are there side effects? Why do I need it? Here’s the answers to your questions.

PROTECTING SENIORS: Here’s how seniors can stay safe from the virus.

COVID AND THE FLU: Get a flu shot and the COVID vaccine to avoid a ‘twindemic.’

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A TRIBUTE TO FLORIDIANS TAKEN BY THE CORONAVIRUS: They were parents and retirees, police officers and doctors, imperfect but loved deeply.

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