Florida COVID-19 hospitalizations spike; new subvariant emerges

The virus has mutated and driven surges of disease during the roughly three-year pandemic.
Medical workers at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater work to stabilize a COVID-19 patient Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021.
Medical workers at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater work to stabilize a COVID-19 patient Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. [ Times (2021) ]
Published Jan. 7

COVID-19 hospitalizations are spiking in Florida, but there’s good news as the state weathers another winter uptick of the virus.

The number of new hospital admissions is far below what the state saw at this time last year when the omicron variant hit — and in early 2021 before COVID-19 vaccines became widely available.

During the week that ended Jan. 4, Florida reported 2,893 new COVID-19 hospitalizations, an increase of 17% compared to the number of admissions in the previous week.

Related: Will Tampa Bay see a winter COVID surge? Here’s what to know.

By contrast, during the first week of January 2022, the Sunshine State logged 11,130 new virus hospitalizations — a 105% jump from the prior week.

It’s too early, though, to declare victory over the pathogen, according to Jason Salemi, a University of South Florida epidemiologist.

While population-level immunity built up by prior vaccinations and infections may be blunting this season’s spike, it’s difficult to predict what will happen next, Salemi said.

“I would love to say, you know, ‘It’s going to be a lot of what we’re seeing now,’” a lower amount of severe illness, “because of that quote-unquote immunity wall,’” Salemi said. “But there’s no guarantee.”

Related: Here’s how to stay safe as RSV, flu, COVID spread in Tampa Bay

The virus has thrown curveballs again and again during the roughly three-year pandemic, mutating and driving surges of disease.

The latest twist is XBB.1.5 — the most transmissible subvariant to date, said Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead for the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 response, during a news briefing this week.

“It does have a growth advantage,” she said. “We don’t have any data on severity yet,” but there’s no indication that the subvariant causes more serious illness.

As of this week, the subvariant — another offshoot of omicron — was rapidly circulating in the Northeast, and Salemi said he expects it to become dominant across the rest of the U.S. soon.

The subvariant accounts for almost 30% of recent infections in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Salemi doubts that XBB.1.5 will spark a record-breaking wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Florida like the delta variant did in summer 2021.

But “we’re going to see a lot of people who are getting infected,” he said, “because it’s just a very, very transmissible form of the virus.” The subvariant may peak in February, he said.

Related: Hospitalizations signal rising COVID-19 risk for US seniors

“We’re all exhausted from the pandemic,” he added. “I think we’re also starting to become a little bit desensitized.”

He encouraged Tampa Bay residents to gather for activities outside and to stay home and take a test if they have COVID-19 symptoms. He also urged people to wear a mask when they’re around high-risk groups indoors.

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People 65 and up are particularly vulnerable to the virus. Only a quarter of Florida seniors have received an updated booster shot from Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna — the fourth-lowest rate of any state in the U.S. behind only Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.

An average of 292 Floridians age 70 and older were hospitalized with the virus every day during the week that ended Jan. 4, an increase of 42% compared to the prior week’s average, federal health officials reported.

Statewide, more than nine in 10 virus deaths last month were among seniors, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Florida Department of Health still hasn’t published guidance on whether seniors should get the updated booster.

The vaccine is widely available, and “if individuals want it, they can get it,” health department spokesperson James Williams III said.

Related: 75% of Florida seniors not boosted ahead of the holidays

The federal government says the new shots provide additional protection against COVID-19 for those who received two or more doses of an original vaccine.

Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties are at medium risk for the virus, federal health officials reported this week. Just over 20% of Florida counties are at high risk, including Miami-Dade County.

Florida recorded 23,241 cases during the week that ended Jan. 4 — a 10% decrease from the number of new cases the previous week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many people use at-home virus tests and don’t report their results to health authorities.

Cases are “becoming completely decoupled from what the wastewater (surveillance) data are saying,” Salemi said. “We still report on them, but they’re becoming less and less informative.”

Locally, Hillsborough reported 1,245 infections during the week that ended Jan. 4, a less than 1% increase from the number of new cases in the prior seven days, according to federal health officials.

Pinellas and Pasco saw increases of 13% and 7%, respectively. Pinellas recorded 944 cases; Pasco identified 519.

On Thursday, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg was treating only four COVID-19 inpatients, according to a spokesperson.

AdventHealth said Wednesday it was caring for just over 100 people with COVID-19 at facilities across the region.

“There has been only a slight increase of approximately 15 patients” since Dec. 28, a spokesperson wrote in an email.