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Florida COVID deaths remain high. Falling cases may signal omicron’s end.

The state’s positivity rate is the lowest since December. But fewer and fewer Floridians are getting vaccinations and booster shots.
A short line seen at the drive-thru COVID-19 testing site at Tropicana Field on Feb. 7 in St. Petersburg. The number of new infections is dropping quickly in Florida but the death toll from omicron remains high, new state numbers show.
A short line seen at the drive-thru COVID-19 testing site at Tropicana Field on Feb. 7 in St. Petersburg. The number of new infections is dropping quickly in Florida but the death toll from omicron remains high, new state numbers show. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Feb. 19, 2022|Updated Feb. 19, 2022

Omicron cases in Florida are continuing to fall quickly, but there is no letup in the number of Floridians dying from the variant — and millions across the state remain unvaccinated.

Florida health officials reported fewer than 10,000 daily COVID-19 infections for the first time in more than two months. The state’s weekly report, released Friday, showed 42,473 total cases for the week of Feb. 11-17, down nearly 60 percent from the week before.

It’s the fifth consecutive week that cases have fallen as the state recovers from the omicron wave that has infected more than 2 million Floridians.

The state’s positivity rate also fell to 8.2 percent, down from 14.3 percent the prior week. It’s the lowest positivity rate since Dec. 16.

Approximately 73 percent of the U.S. population is immune to the omicron variant, according to estimates reported this week by the Associated Press. That number is likely even higher in Florida, said Thomas Hladish, a research scientist at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute.

“I think it’s safe to say that infections will return to pre-omicron levels by early March,” Hladish said.

Related: Estimated 73% of US now immune to omicron: Is that enough?

Even as cases fall, the death toll from omicron remains high. The state reported 1,330 deaths due to COVID-19 in the past week — the highest from the current surge.

While cases are falling fast, it’s not as quickly as experts had hoped. That could be due to a number of factors, including Florida’s recent cold snap forcing people inside together and lax precautions, Hladish said.

Experts anticipated a small resurgence of infections after the new, more infectious, BA.2 subvariant arrived in Florida last month, but that has not materialized so far.

Fourteen cases of the BA.2 subvariant were identified in Florida in the past week, according to GISAID, a public database used by scientists to track the spread of infectious diseases. That’s out of the 3,300 samples uploaded by Florida laboratories to the database in the past week.

That brings the total number of BA.2 cases publicly identified in Florida up to 19. However, only a small percentage of positive test samples undergo genetic sequencing to identify the COVID-19 variant.

BayCare chief medical officer Nishant Anand said he is still is worried that BA.2 could start spreading in Florida. No large studies have yet answered whether those who caught omicron have antibody protection from the subvariant, he said.

“That’s what will be the most important data points we can get in the next few weeks,” said Anand.

Related: Omicron’s ‘fat tail:’ Why aren’t COVID infections falling faster?

Florida’s vaccination effort has stalled, state data shows. Florida set a new low for vaccinations this week, as 34,599 residents were vaccinated, including 16,036 who received their first shot. More than 5.4 million eligible Floridians remain unvaccinated.

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The number of people getting boosters also hit a new low, with just 24,004 shots administered in the past week. Just 23 percent of the state’s population has been boosted. Florida has the 12th-lowest booster rate among eligible residents, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health experts say boosters offer the best protection against omicron.

Citing reduced demand, Hillsborough County officials announced that Sunday will be the last day of operation of a public drive-through testing site at the entrance to Adventure Island water park across the street from Busch Gardens. The county will keep three other testing sites open for now.

The city of Tampa closed one of its two testing sites last week, with the other, a drive-through site at Al Barnes Park, scheduled to close Feb. 26.

Tampa Bay hospitals continue to report treating fewer COVID-19 patients.

Tampa General Hospital reported it had 72 COVID-19 patients as of Friday, down from 93 the previous week.

BayCare reported 371 COVID-19 patients as of Friday across its 14 acute care hospitals in the Tampa Bay region. That’s down from 525 one week ago.

Anand, the BayCare chief medical officer, expects the number of patients and the number of infection cases will keep falling over the next few months, but, as with the delta surge, there still will be some people who catch the virus and end up in the hospital.

“They tend to be individuals who are unvaccinated or elderly with chronic conditions,” he said.

Florida’s decline in cases should mean families can be more confident about making travel plans for spring break, Anand said, but he urged people still to be wary of large indoor gatherings.

Since 2020, Florida has seen cases surge in both summer and winter months. Anand said now is a good time to get vaccine and booster shots, and for families to stock up on masks and home test kits:

“As we see a reprieve and head into the spring months, now is the time to prepare.”

• • •

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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