Florida’s omicron infection wave is on a steep decline, but the death count is soaring and fewer Floridians are seeking the protection of vaccines and booster shots.
The state reported 1,192 deaths this week, the highest death rate since October’s delta wave and nearly twice as many deaths as the previous week.
Florida health officials recorded 198,719 COVID-19 infections during the seven-day period of Jan. 21-27, according to the weekly report released late Friday. That’s a 53 percent drop from the omicron peak of 430,297 cases reported Jan. 7-13.
As infections drop, so do hospitalizations. Florida hospitals reported 9,409 confirmed COVID-19 patients as of Friday, a decline of 11 percent from the prior week.
When will Florida’s pandemic deaths peak and then decline? There are many factors at work. It can take weeks for a COVID-19 infection to turn fatal, and weeks more for the state to verify and report an infection-related death. In previous waves, deaths have continued to climb weeks after infections had reached their crest.
The rest of the country is faring far worse, however. The seven-day rolling average for daily COVID-19 deaths reached 2,300 fatalities on Friday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That surpasses the delta peak of 2,000 daily deaths in September.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Rochelle Walensky warned during a White House briefing on Wednesday that while omicron produces less severe symptoms, it still is a serious illness wreaking havoc on the nation.
”Importantly, ‘milder’ does not mean ‘mild.’ And we cannot look past the strain on our health systems and substantial number of deaths,” she said.
The coronavirus has claimed the lives of 3,254 Floridians since the first omicron case was detected in the state on Dec. 7. Nearly 80 percent of those fatalities were ages 65 and over, despite the high vaccination rate among that age group — an indicator of how the omicron variant can evade vaccine and natural immunity and underscoring the need for continued caution. The U.S. leads the world with more than 881,000 pandemic deaths, and experts say omicron will lead to the nation reaching 1 million COVID-19 deaths. Florida has now lost 64,955 lives to the virus.
Vaccines remain the best tool for preventing serious illness and death, but not all of the 5.6 million Floridians ages 5 and above who are eligible to get their shots are heeding that message. The state administered 72,378 first and second doses of vaccine last week, the third-lowest weekly number since the vaccines first rolled out in December 2020.
Booster shots have proven especially effective against omicron, yet only 71,674 got their extra shot last week. That’s the lowest number since they were made available to residents under 65 in September. There are at least 5.9 million Floridians eligible for a booster who have yet to get it.
The number of COVID-19 patients in Tampa Bay hospitals remains high, although some hospital officials said the number of new admissions is falling.
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BayCare is treating 771 patients with COVID-19 across its 14 acute care hospitals throughout the Tampa Bay area, down about 100 patients from the previous week. The majority of infected patients being treated in BayCare hospitals are unvaccinated, officials said.
The number of COVID-19 patients at Tampa General Hospital also has fallen. The hospital was tending to 171 patients as of Friday, which is down 15 from the previous week. But the number in intensive care has increased to 52.
“New admission rates have dropped, but the sicker ones are here,” said Seetha Lakshmi, associate hospital epidemiologist at Tampa General and an assistant professor at the Division of Infectious Disease at the University of South Florida Health Morsani College of Medicine.
While the omicron variant produces more symptoms in the upper respiratory system, she said, if the patient is unable to fight off the virus, it spreads to the lungs and can have the same fatal outcome as delta.
“In the ICU, it doesn’t feel any different than with delta,” Lakshmi said. “Once they get critically ill, it’s very similar.”
The omicron surge hasn’t put as many people in the hospital as delta, but it continues to strain the pandemic-weary staff. And it comes at a time when virtually every hospital is struggling to fill nursing vacancies.
At Tampa General, Lakshmi said that means nurses are working overtime and may still be tired when they start their next shift.
“It takes a lot out of the health care workers to respond to crisis after crisis,” she said. “It’s like getting hit by a hurricane back-to-back.”
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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
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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