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Florida omicron deaths still rising, 2 more ‘stealth’ cases found in Miami

Omicron infections continue to decline, but the contagious BA.2 subvariant has experts worried.
A Motorist waits in line on Jan. 10 to be tested for COVID-19 at the public drive-thru testing site at Hillsborough Community College’s Brandon campus.
A Motorist waits in line on Jan. 10 to be tested for COVID-19 at the public drive-thru testing site at Hillsborough Community College’s Brandon campus. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Feb. 5|Updated Feb. 5

Florida’s omicron wave is subsiding, but public health experts warn the danger isn’t over. The high infection rate continues to squeeze the state’s health care system and a new, even more contagious subvariant may prolong the pandemic.

The state reported 132,622 new cases of COVID-19 from Jan. 28 to Feb. 3 according to the weekly report released Friday. That’s down 33 percent from the week before.

Florida still averaged more than 18,900 new infections a day, which is close to the peak infections of the delta wave through August.

The state death rate also continues to climb. Florida reported 1,324 deaths in the past week, the highest weekly death toll yet of the omicron wave. Those deaths were reported on the day the U.S. surpassed 900,000 deaths over the course of the 23-month pandemic. Florida has lost 66,279 people to the virus.

More than 4,200 Floridians have died since the first omicron case was detected in the state on Dec. 7. Delays in reporting mean that many of these deaths occurred more than a week ago and the total tally of fatalities will likely grow in weeks to come.

Related: ‘Stealth’ omicron is more contagious. Now Florida has two cases.

The state’s case positivity fell to 18 percent — still far above the 5 percent level the World Health Organizations suggests as a threshold for returning to normal.

Positivity rates were especially high among Florida’s youngest. Those ages 12-19 tested positive 23.1 percent of the time, and kids ages 5-11 tested positive 22.7 percent of the time.

Children ages 4 and under tested positive 20.1 percent of the time. Federal health authorities have yet to approve a vaccine for that age group.

Two more cases of the BA.2 subvariant dubbed “stealth” omicron were identified this week in Miami-Dade County, according to Premier Medical Laboratory Services. That joins the two cases that were identified in the state from patient samples taken in mid-January.

It’s likely that BA.2 is far more widespread than testing has revealed.

“When we say it’s not here, it’s probably been here for a while,” said University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi. “And by that time there’s probably 100-fold more cases than we know about.”

Scientists believe BA.2 is even more contagious than the original omicron variant, BA.1, which was more contagious than the delta variant. Those infectious strains pose a substantial risk to unvaccinated or immunocompromised residents.

Related: Florida’s omicron deaths nearly double as infections keep falling

Florida vaccinated 59,872 residents last week, including nearly 29,000 who received their first shot. It’s the third week in a row that vaccinations have fallen and marks the lowest number of vaccinations since the first week that they were introduced in December 2020. More than 6.6 million Floridians remain unvaccinated.

An additional 45,290 Floridians got their booster shot last week. Vaccines and boosters are the most effective way to prevent hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19. They also reduce the chance that someone will catch and spread the virus.

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Over 9,100 confirmed COVID-19 cases were admitted to Florida hospitals between Jan. 26 to Feb. 3. That’s down from the omicron peak of nearly 15,000 patients during the week of Jan. 9.

Tampa Bay region hospitals reported treating fewer COVID-19 patients this week, but officials said they’re concerned that admissions remain high weeks after the peak of omicron infections.

Tampa General Hospital was tending to 135 patients as of Friday, down 36 from the previous week. Fewer patients were in intensive care, with just 30 ICU beds occupied by COVID-19 patients compared to 52 one week ago.

Related: Omicron is fading. What does the future of COVID look like?

BayCare was treating 679 COVID-19 patients across its 14 acute care hospitals as of Friday. That’s down almost 100 from a week ago, but still a strain on hospital resources at a time when admissions from flu season and health conditions typically increase during cold weather, said BayCare chief medical officer Nishant Anand.

And he said its hospitals are still admitting roughly 100 COVID-19 patients every day.

“I would like to see that number drop to below 50 so we can release more people than we admit,” said Anand.

While the number of COVID-19 patients may be lower than during the delta surge, the protocols to protect doctors, nurses and other patients means it takes more time and resources to tend patients.

“You have to isolate them and put on personal protective equipment, take it off, wash your hands,” he said. “All the extra precautions, they add up.”

The arrival of the BA.2 subvariant in Florida poses a serious complication to the pandemic picture.

The omicron BA.2 variant has steadily outcompeted the original omicron strain in countries where it has been detected. A Danish study, released last week, estimated that the new variant may be 34 percent more infectious than its earlier cousin.

It could mean the expected decrease in cases forecast after Florida passed the peak of omicron infections in mid-January doesn’t happen, Anand said, as the highly contagious subvariant starts generating new infections and replaces the original omicron strain. He is anxiously awaiting clinical data on whether the antibodies created by omicron infections will protect those people from being re-infected by BA.2.

If re-infections are common, that could result in another wave of cases.

“If they’re not resistant then here we go again,” Anand said. “That’s the big concern we have.”

• • •

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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