The new year begins with Florida facing the worst phase of the pandemic yet.
The state ended 2021 averaging a record 42,600 cases a day from Dec. 24-30, according to the latest weekly report released late Friday. That seven-day average far exceeds the previous pandemic high of 25,000 daily cases driven by the delta variant over the summer.
When Florida’s first omicron infection was detected in a St. Lucie County patient Dec. 6, the state was seeing about 1,930 daily infections. In 25 days, average daily infections have jumped by more than 2,100 percent.
Florida’s positivity rate is also climbing fast. It was 2.6 percent when the first omicron case was discovered. It is now 26.5 percent, according to the latest state report.
The rapid spread of omicron has skyrocketed the demand for testing. Tampa Bay’s municipal governments scrambled this week to open public testing sites but some were closed for the New Year’s holiday.
One site open Friday was at Al Lopez Park, where three people fainted as thousands sought testing and wait times stretched into hours. More than 1,000 people had been tested by 11 a.m., a city official said, and the site could end up testing 3,000 to 5,000 people a day.
Younger Floridians are most vulnerable to the omicron wave. The age group with the highest positivity rate are those ages 20-29 at 33 percent. The next highest rate was 31 percent for those ages 30-39.
The positivity rates for teenagers and children are quickly rising. Ages 12-19 saw a 29 percent positivity rate. The rates for children under 11 have nearly doubled in a week to 22 percent for those ages 5-11 and 21 percent for those 4 and younger.
Vaccinations and boosters are key to protecting against omicron, but the state’s vaccination rate declined after Christmas. The weekly report shows 81,503 people got their first dose of the vaccine, a 27 percent decrease from the week before. Booster shots saw an even steeper decline, falling 40 percent as 197,094 got their extra dose.
In Florida, 68 percent of the total population has received at least one vaccine dose, putting it in the middle of all states. That’s about 15 million people who have some level of protection. More than 7 million Floridians ages 4 and up remain unvaccinated.
There were 4,485 patients hospitalized on Friday for COVID-19 in state hospitals, according to the Florida Hospital Association. That’s a 271 percent increase in two weeks. About 26 percent of intensive care unit beds and 22 percent of hospital beds were available in the state.
The state reported a total of 298,455 confirmed cases for the past week, bringing Florida’s total infections to nearly 4.2 million over the course of the 22-month pandemic. Weekly COVID-19 cases have doubled in each week of December.
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Deaths are not rising at the same rate, but the virus’ death toll always lags infections by several weeks. The state added 162 deaths from the previous week, bringing Florida’s total deaths to 62,504. The weekly total of deaths are those recorded within the past seven days and the holidays could delay reporting. It can take officials two weeks or more to confirm COVID-related deaths.
Preliminary studies suggest that while omicron is more contagious than delta, it may not be as virulent or cause symptoms as severe as delta. BayCare’s hospitals were not seeing symptoms in omicron patients as severe as those from previous strains, said chief medical officer Nishant Anand. Symptoms include cough, running nose, sore throat, similar to the common cold, among all ages including children.
“People are staying less long in the hospital, that means they’re recovering quicker,” he said. “They’re not ending up on the ventilator as often and they’re not having serious complications like we saw with delta.”
The fear as always is that a wave of COVID-19 patients will overwhelm hospitals and medical personnel, and sap resources needed to treat other medical emergencies.
“It’s not just COVID cases we’re taking care of,” Anand said. “We still have traumas. We have strokes and heart attacks. We want to make sure they’re able to be taken care of.”
As of Thursday, 145 people were hospitalized due to the virus across AdventHealth’s 11 hospitals in Hardee, Highlands, Hillsborough, Marion, Pasco and Pinellas counties. That number remains under its peak of 650 patients during the delta wave.
Most of the COVID-19 patients being treated by AdventHealth who are experiencing complications from the virus are unvaccinated. Among vaccinated patients experiencing breakthrough infections, the majority had not received a booster shot. Only about 4 percent of positive cases were among people who already had the booster, according to AdventHealth.
Tampa General Hospital is currently “functioning at normal operation,” said chief medical officer Peggy Dugan. The hospital is under less stress, however, because there are fewer elective surgeries being performed. Hospital personnel are watching the trends closely.
The outlook is different for children’s hospitals. At John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, physicians are seeing a rise in the common cold, flu and COVID-19 cases. Ages 4 and under are not yet eligible to be vaccinated, and children with underlying conditions who get infected may face more serious illnesses.
“Our pediatric age group is the least vaccinated group that we have,” said Joseph Perno, the hospital’s vice president of medical affairs. “This is a population that’s very vulnerable and now you have a highly contagious variant that’s in the community.”
Perno fears what will happen when school resumes after winter break, when children will start gathering in close quarters together.
“What we’re seeing now is a precursor for what is about to happen in the next couple of weeks, which is worrying.”
Times staff writers Hannah Critchfield and Lauren Peace contributed to this report.
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How to get tested
Tampa Bay: The Times can help you find the free, public COVID-19 testing sites in Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota counties.
Florida: The Department of Health has a website that lists testing sites in the state. Some information may be out of date.
The U.S.: The Department of Health and Human Services has a website that can help you find a testing site.
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How to get vaccinated
The COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 and up and booster shots for everyone ages 16 and up 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.
Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.
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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? We’ve got answers.
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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