There are plenty of warning signs that Florida may be in the grip of another COVID-19 surge.
More than three-quarters of Floridians live in counties at “high” risk of COVID-19, according to federal data released Thursday. Last week, half the state’s residents lived in high-risk areas.
That includes the Tampa Bay region. That means residents should all wear masks in public indoor spaces, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, and get tested if they have symptoms.
”Based on new cases per week and hospitalization going up, that means it’s time to start protecting ourselves with a mask when we go indoors or in crowded areas,” said Laura Arline, a doctor of internal medicine and pediatrics and BayCare’s chief quality officer.
The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations is up, too, by nearly 20%. The state’s positivity rate is nearly 20%, the highest rate in four months.
Florida recorded 71,797 infections in the past week — an average of 10,257 cases per day. That’s up 7.5% from the week before.
That is likely an undercount of Florida’s COVID-19 infections, however. It’s harder than ever to measure the virus’s spread. Widespread testing is no more. Many rely on at-home tests, the results of which are not reported to health officials. A backlog in testing caused by the long Memorial Day weekend could also be holding back case counts.
The increase in cases has slowed in recent weeks. Still, it’s too soon to tell whether that means the surge is over, said University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it starts to plateau,” he said, because there may be “so much built up immunity in our communities.”
Salemi said Memorial Day weekend could also end up prolonging the uptick in infections, as holiday gatherings typically fuel COVID-19 transmission.
Summer itself is also a factor: In the past two years, infections tend to rise with the temperature as Florida’s summer heat drives people indoors.
Test positivity jumped to 19.8% last week — up from 18.3% the week before. The state is recording the fewest test results since the start of the pandemic, which could contribute to high positivity rates.
Florida hospitals reported 2,465 confirmed COVID-19 patients Thursday. That’s a 20% increase from the 2,068 patients being treated the week before.
Local hospitals are seeing the same increase in patients.
BayCare reported treating 160 COVID-19 patients at its hospitals as of Friday, up by about 100 from one month ago, said Arline, the BayCare doctor.
The uptick is less marked at Tampa General Hospital, which reported 35 patients with COVID-19 as of Friday, eight more than three weeks ago.
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Most of the cases BayCare is treating were infected by the BA2.12.1 variant, Arline said, a descendant of the BA.2 subvariant of omicron.
Arline said hospitalization rates are still low compared to the delta surge in the summer of 2021 because this version of the virus is not as virulent. But it is highly contagious and could match delta’s caseloads, although a more accurate number of infections may be unknown because of the increased use of home tests, she said.
“This is the most contagious version we’ve ever had out there,” Arline said. “We’re going into a surge — no doubt.”
Unlike other surges, however, our defenses against this one are weaker. Vaccines are less effective at preventing infection, and while they can still stave off disease and death, immunity wanes over time. Those who haven’t gotten a booster, or were vaccinated months ago, are vulnerable.
The current surge is potentially deadly for the elderly, immunocompromised and those with existing health conditions, groups that make up the vast majority of those being treated in BayCare hospitals.
That’s why it’s still important to get vaccinated or get the latest booster, Arline said. COVID-19 vaccines, she said, are still highly effective at preventing severe symptoms, hospitalization and death from this variant.
If there is a sliver of positive news, it is that Florida hospitals are less likely to be overwhelmed. Statewide there were 4.6 times as many COVID-19 patients at the peak of the omicron wave in January.
“I certainly do not expect hospitalizations to get near previous peaks in Florida,” Salemi said.
Times staff writer Sam Ogozalek contributed to this report.
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How to get tested
Tampa Bay: The Times can help you find the free, public COVID-19 testing sites in the bay area.
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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