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COVID-19 infections once again on the rise in Florida

The state’s positivity rate has also climbed to 8 percent. Is the new variant called BA.2.12.1 responsible?
Masked passengers ride the escalators at Tampa International Airport on March 30. A federal judge recently threw out the U.S. national mask mandate for transportation, including airplanes and airports. But COVID-19 cases are once again rising in Florida.
Masked passengers ride the escalators at Tampa International Airport on March 30. A federal judge recently threw out the U.S. national mask mandate for transportation, including airplanes and airports. But COVID-19 cases are once again rising in Florida. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]
Published Apr. 22|Updated Apr. 23

Florida’s pandemic respite appears to be over. COVID-19 infections are once again climbing across the state, and a new variant could be responsible.

The state recorded nearly 3,000 cases per day, on average, over the most recent seven-day period from April 15 to Friday. That’s nearly double the 1,600 average daily caseload from two weeks earlier, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Florida’s positivity rate jumped to nearly 8 percent on April 18, the CDC reported. It’s the highest level seen in Florida since February — up from 4.2 percent just two weeks ago.

Early in the pandemic, the World Health Organization suggested that communities could resume normal activities only after seeing 2 consecutive weeks of positivity rates below 5 percent.

Related: Florida adds 20,860 COVID cases in past week as infections climb

The state reported 133 deaths in the past week, down from the 155 deaths reported the week before.

Florida has recorded a total of 5.9 million infections and 73,822 deaths as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into two years and two months.

The true number of infections in recent weeks is likely much higher because of two important factors. At-home tests are now widely available but those results are not reported to state health officials, so they don’t get counted when tabulating caseloads.

That means that Florida’s case count only includes positive test results from clinical settings like state-run testing sites, healthcare facilities and pharmacies. But in the past two weeks, Florida reported the fewest clinical test results since June 2020.

Some Floridians may be unable to access testing due to limited public testing facilities, which could also result in an undercounting of cases.

Related: Court ruling creates mishmash of transportation mask rules

The increase in cases coincides with the emergence of a new COVID-19 variant called BA.2.12.1. The new variant is part of the omicron BA.2 family, and now accounts for nearly one in five new infections in the Southeast, according to the CDC.

New York state health officials estimate that the new variant is about 23 to 27 percent more transmissible than BA.2 and may be behind the recent bump in cases in that state.

Florida Department of Health spokesperson Jeremy Redfern would not comment on whether the new variant was a concern, but said that the department is “monitoring COVID-19 and conducting genomic sequencing to detect variants as part of our overall surveillance efforts.”

Across the state, hospitalizations are creeping back up as well, but not at the same rate as cases.

Florida hospitals reported 746 confirmed COVID-19 patients on Friday, up nearly 16 percent over the past two weeks. Hospitalizations tend to lag behind infections by 2-3 weeks.

Related: Moderna announces step toward updating COVID shots for fall

Admissions from COVID-19 infections remain well below the peak numbers that Tampa Bay region hospitals saw during the omicron surge in November and December.

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BayCare officials reported treating 122 infected patients across their 15 hospitals in the Tampa Bay region as of Friday. That’s up from 99 one month ago.

AdventHealth West Florida Division officials said they are caring for 30 COVID-19 patients among 13 hospitals between Ocala and Lake Placid, roughly the same number as one month earlier.

Tampa General Hospital was treating 17 patients for COVID-19 as of Friday, with three of those in intensive care.

Related: How parts of the U.S. test-to-treat COVID strategy are failing

Getting vaccinated and boosted is still the best way to prevent severe illness, according to CDC guidelines. But vaccine efficacy wanes over time, and up to 60 percent of fully vaccinated Floridians are overdue for a booster, according to CDC data.

In a statement released last week, New York State Commissioner Mary T. Bassett urged New Yorkers to continue masking in indoor areas and to test after a potential exposure to the virus.

“While these subvariants are new,” Bassett said in the statement, “the tools to combat them are not.”

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