The omicron variant is spreading like wildfire across Florida and infecting a record number of people.
The state averaged nearly 57,000 COVID-19 infections a day from Dec. 31 to Thursday, according to the weekly report released Friday. That is the highest weekly infection rate thus far during the 22-month pandemic. It is also more than 150 percent higher than the peak of the delta wave that swept through the state last summer.
Florida accounted for one out of every 10 infections in the U.S. last week and had the seventh-highest rates of infection per capita, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Case positivity also hit an unprecedented high, with more than 31 percent of the COVID-19 tests taken in the past week coming back positive. Those aged 20-29 have the highest positivity rate at nearly 36 percent. The lowest positivity rate was among those 65 and over, but even that is nearly 23 percent.
The highest concentration of cases was in Miami-Dade, the state’s most populated county, where nearly 4 percent of its nearly 3 million residents tested positive in the past week alone.
The state recorded 184 deaths in the past week. Some of those deaths may have occurred in previous weeks, but were only recorded in the last seven days. As new cases continue to mount, deaths have also climbed in recent weeks.
The Florida Department of Health has not released any data that shows how many Floridians have the omicron variant. But Gov. Ron DeSantis said omicron is “overwhelmingly” the dominant strain in the state. The variant is now responsible for 95 percent of infections in the U.S., according to the CDC.
“It shoots straight up unlike any viral curve we’ve seen yet throughout the pandemic,” DeSantis said at a Thursday news conference. “But when it does peak it comes down very quickly.”
The 397,114 cases reported this past week mean that 4.6 million confirmed cases have been detected in Florida since the first cases were discovered on March 1, 2020. The death toll now stands at 62,688.
The best protection against omicron is to get vaccinated, boosted and to wear an effective mask, such as a KN95 or N95 mask, health experts say. But as omicron infections keep rising, the number of Floridians seeking the protection of vaccines keeps falling.
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Vaccinations fell for the third week in a row, with just over 125,000 doses administered this week. As of Thursday, 72 percent of eligible Floridians have been vaccinated. That rate is lower among the youngest residents: 16 percent of those aged 5-11 and 59 percent of those aged 12-19 have been vaccinated. An additional 170,000 Floridians got their booster shot last week.
Florida hospitals are seeing the effects of omicron firsthand: There were 8,548 confirmed COVID-19 cases filling state hospital beds as of Friday, four times as many as two weeks ago, according to federal data.
There were 12,353 patients admitted in the past seven days, a nearly 75 percent jump from last week. It’s the highest number of new COVID-19 hospitalizations since the end of August. That number includes 570 children under 18 — the highest number of kids hospitalized in one week throughout the pandemic.
Tampa Bay hospital officials are watching anxiously as the number of COVID-19 patients they treat continues to climb.
AdventHealth’s West Florida Division, which operates hospitals in five counties around Tampa Bay, reported 262 COVID patients on Friday, up from 62 one month ago.
At the same time, the hospital chain is having to deal with too many people turning up at its emergency rooms looking to be tested instead of going to pharmacies or clinics, said AdventHealth spokesperson Ashley Jeffery.
“We are still encouraging people to not come to the ER for a COVID test,” said Jeffery.
The number of COVID patients at Tampa General Hospital rose from 29 on Christmas Eve to 168 on Friday, with 23 of those in intensive care.
One-quarter of Florida hospitals reported a critical staffing shortage by the end of the week. Less than 4 percent of hospitals were reporting a similar shortage this time last year.
At Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, an increasing number of infected children are arriving at the emergency room.
Almost 250 children tested positive over the past week. Compare that to the 17 children who tested positive in November and the 55 in December. Most underwent a medical examination and their parents were told to manage their symptoms at home. However, 13 children were being treated in the hospital for COVID-19 as of Friday afternoon.
The hospital is also dealing with flu season with 123 children being diagnosed last month. And school just resumed this week after the holiday break.
“We expect to get busier in the next few weeks with more children getting infected especially now they’re going back to schools,” said Juan Dumois, a pediatric infectious diseases physician. “In many cases, fewer people are masking in their schools.”
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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 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.
Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.
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More 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.
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