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Florida omicron infections fall while COVID deaths rise

Six weeks after omicron was detected, the state has recorded 1.6 million COVID-19 infections.
The state reported 289,204 COVID-19 cases from Jan. 14-20 in the weekly report released Friday.
The state reported 289,204 COVID-19 cases from Jan. 14-20 in the weekly report released Friday. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 22|Updated Jan. 22

The omicron wave may have finally peaked in Florida, but the contagious variant’s high death toll is now revealing itself.

The state recorded 605 deaths in the past week, the highest weekly death toll since the end of the delta wave in November. Nearly 1,300 COVID-19 deaths have been confirmed in the past three weeks. There may be many more to come.

Researchers at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute estimate that the omicron wave may end up about a third as deadly as the delta wave, but that still means nearly 8,000 Floridians could die from the variant. The state’s total death toll now stands at 63,763.

This week did mark the first decline in omicron’s spread across Florida. The state reported 289,204 COVID-19 cases from Jan. 14-20 in the weekly report released Friday. That is a drop of 33 percent from the caseload reported the week before. It’s a pattern similar to the infection curves in South Africa and the United Kingdom, where cases reached astonishing heights before quickly ebbing.

Related: Florida’s omicron wave could be worse than data shows

But the state still averaged 41,300 infections a day during that time period, which exceeds the daily peak of the delta wave. Florida’s infection rate is still twice as high as any previous wave thus far in the pandemic, and the true number of infections is likely higher. Experts say that’s because home test kits aren’t being tracked and testing resources can’t keep up with the scale of viral spread. Those resources are also lacking in areas with high infection rates.

Since the state’s first omicron patient was identified on Dec. 7, Florida has recorded 1.6 million cases. That means 30 percent of the 5.3 million COVID-19 infections the state has recorded in the nearly 23-month pandemic occurred in the past six weeks.

While infections have started to wane, the fallout from the omicron wave will likely be felt for weeks to come.

“The biggest issue is that omicron expanded the set of people who can be infected,” said University of South Florida immunologist Michael Teng.

Although the omicron variant is less severe, especially in those who are vaccinated and boosted, the sheer number of infections means that many Floridians will end up in the hospital, and many may still succumb to the virus.

Florida’s hospitals remained strained under the pressure of new COVID-19 admissions. And it can take weeks for a severe infection to turn deadly.

Hospitalizations fell slightly in the past week, down to 13,737 confirmed COVID-19 admissions from 14,523 the week before, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hospitalizations during the omicron wave are higher than at any point in the pandemic except for the peak of the delta wave in August.

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Nearly one in four adults in state hospitals had tested positive as of Friday, up from less than 3 percent at the start of December.

Related: Hillsborough to open COVID drive-thru test site at Adventure Island

Despite the alarmingly high admission rates, total hospitalizations have not increased at the same speed, suggesting that those admitted to the hospital are staying for shorter periods.

The share of infected patients needing intensive care — 15 percent as of Friday — remains far below any previous wave of infections. During the delta wave, as many as one-third of COVID-19 patients were in the ICU, according to Department of Health and Human Services data.

“The rate of ICU and ventilators is less,” said Teng, “but keep in mind that the overall number (of hospitalizations) are huge.”

The best way to prevent a serious infection, experts said, is to get vaccinated and boosted. New data released Friday by the CDC shows that unvaccinated adults 65 and older who catch COVID-19 are 49 times more likely to end up in the hospital compared to those who have received booster doses.

But while vaccines and boosters prove to be effective at staving off severe illness and death from omicron, too few in Florida are seeking their protection. Nearly 93,000 Floridians got their first or second dose of vaccine last week, state data shows — the lowest numbers since the vaccination effort started in December 2020. An additional 116,000 more were boosted last week.

Related: Omicron undermines Florida’s strategy to combat coronavirus

The number of patients being treated in Tampa Bay region hospitals for COVID-19 symptoms remains high.

As of Friday, BayCare reported 880 patients across its 14 acute care hospitals in the Tampa Bay area, 40 more than one week ago. The majority of those are unvaccinated, said spokesperson Vjollca Hysenlika.

Tampa General Hospital reported 186 COVID-19 patients, eight more than one week ago. Forty-nine of those are in intensive care.

HCA Healthcare West Florida Division officials said Thursday that there are signs that the recent surge in hospitalizations at its 15 hospitals may be slowing.

“We’ve seen our inpatient census stabilize and today it’s down a little bit,” said Sebastian Strom, the division’s chief medical officer. “We appear to have maybe peaked.”

HCA officials declined to cite the number of patients but said the omicron surge has equaled admissions during infection waves in the first summer of the pandemic in 2020 and around January 2021.

Related: 5 crucial Florida COVID stories of 2021, and what’s ahead in 2022

The highly contagious nature of omicron has thrown in additional complications. There were more instances of patients already in hospital for other reasons testing positive, Strom said.

And the number of hospital workers who have contracted the virus, which has shown it can evade the protection provided by vaccines, has made staffing a struggle. Even when hospital staffers showed no symptoms, Strom said, they still had to stay off work to avoid spreading the infection.

“It was a very significant strain,” he said. “Our workforce mirrors the outpatient community. We saw a quick rise in health care workers who were exposed or who became sick, so many of them were sidelined from work for a short period of time.”

• • •

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.

• • •

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.

• • •

More coronavirus coverage

OMICRON VARIANT: Omicron changed what we know about COVID. Here’s the latest on how the infectious COVID-19 variant affects masks, vaccines, boosters and quarantining.

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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