Don’t treat omicron lightly in Florida. It packs a punch | Analysis
A look at how the variant stacks up against previous COVID-19 waves.
Coronavirus close up.
Coronavirus close up.
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Feb. 3|Updated Feb. 4

The COVID delta variant hit Florida hard. More people here died from the virus between August and November than in any other state. Even accounting for population, our death rate topped the rankings for days at a time.

Omicron is not delta. The new variant is unlikely to kill as many Floridians. But it’s time to stop referring to it as “mild.” Milder than delta? Sure, so far at least, and it looks like it could stay that way. That, however, is like comparing a strengthening tropical storm to the notorious Hurricanes Andrew or Katrina, which devastated Homestead in 1992 and New Orleans in 2005. Nothing really competes when compared to the worst of the worst. But that doesn’t make omicron a lightweight variant. In fact, it appears to be punching well above its reputation.

First, a quick refresher. The delta variant took hold in the summer. By mid-August, it had Florida by the throat. The number of cases soared, followed by hospitalizations and then deaths. The state raced past its previous record for daily average deaths, eventually doubling the previous high, based on a seven-day rolling average.

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From April, when vaccines became available to all adults, to near the peak of the delta outbreak in late September, Florida posted by far the most COVID deaths among the six largest states. Florida, for instance, had three times as many COVID deaths as California, despite having about half the number of residents. The picture got worse when accounting for population, a Times Editorial Board analysis found. Over those six months, Florida’s death rate for every 100,000 residents was more than three times higher than in New York and more than five times higher than in California. In fact, only Texas had a rate that was at least half of Florida’s.

The delta wave subsided in October. Deaths plunged. And then omicron arrived in early December. The highly infectious variant spread quickly, but it didn’t kill like delta. Deaths remained relatively low into January. More recently, the number of COVID cases exploded, and deaths have increased. As of Friday, about 4,000 Floridians had died from COVID in the two months since the first omicron case appeared in the state. (Not all of those deaths can be attributed to the omicron variant.) That’s not even close to the more than 10,000 who died in the delta wave in September alone.

But omicron’s toll is mounting. On Friday, COVID was killing 194 Floridians a day, based on a seven-day average. That would be the state record — if not for the delta spike. Omicron is killing Floridians at a higher rate that at any time other than from mid-August to mid-October, according to the Times Editorial Board analysis. In other words, if delta hadn’t hit Florida so hard, we might be thinking of this current spike like we thought of delta back in August. The devastating delta wave skewed the picture, making what comes after seem weak and less alarming.

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Another unsettling fact: Florida’s current COVID death rate is higher than the peak that 32 other states experienced during delta, the Times found. In other words, our omicron wave is already worse than their delta peak, at least when it comes to deaths per day accounting for population. For instance, COVID was killing more than nine Floridians a day for every 1 million residents this week. During the delta wave, North Carolina, Colorado and Ohio’s rates never reached eight deaths a day per 1 million residents. Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maine never reached six. California didn’t reach four. Nor did Illinois or New Jersey. Again, our omicron is already worse than their delta. That can hardly be described as “mild.”

COVID deaths often lag behind cases. Patients who end up in the hospital can hang on for days or weeks, as hospital staff try to keep them alive. Some survive, but others succumb. The good news for Florida is it looks like the recent wave of COVID hospitalizations has already peaked. But those numbers got quite high. About two weeks ago, new hospitalizations per 100,000 residents reached 11.3 a day, just short of the 11.9 peak during delta.

COVID hospitalizations
COVID hospitalizations [ Tampa Bay Times ]

The high rate of hospitalization does not mean that omicron will kill as many people as delta (though the new “stealth omicron” variant might change the equation). The current wave is unlikely to last as long as the delta wave, the variant is not as virulent as delta, and more people are vaccinated or carry antibodies that will help protect them from severe infections. Plus, COVID did not put all of those people in the hospital. Some were there for other reasons and happened to test positive, often while showing only mild or no serious symptoms. That said, new COVID-related hospitalizations of people 70 or older had never been as high as they got a couple weeks ago, significantly outpacing the peak set during the delta wave. The over-70 crowd is particularly susceptible to severe COVID infections. Bottom line: Don’t expect the daily death rate to plummet in the short term.

What does all this mean? Omicron might be less likely to kill any individual who gets it, but our communities as a whole should be wary about treating the variant as a weakling barely worth our attention. Deaths have picked up, even if our governor doesn’t want to talk about them. The death rate has spiked, even if we all want to move on. Taking omicron lightly means unnecessarily risking more lives. That doesn’t mean we should lock down the economy, immediately close schools, or never come out of our homes. We still have effective tools — vaccinations, boosters, masks in public indoor spaces, and social distancing when appropriate. Now is the time for doubling down on those measures.

Unfortunately, Gov. Ron DeSantis made it harder in November when he signed bills that banned school districts from passing mask mandates, prohibited governments from enacting vaccine requirements for public sector employees and greatly restricted businesses’ ability to mandate vaccines for their employees. He took those tools out of the toolboxes of private businesses and local elected officials, ignoring the reality that the needs in Miami might be far different than in Wakulla Springs. Remember the numbers in these charts — and the governor’s policies — at election time.

So, again, it’s up to each of us — to protect ourselves and others. Vigilance needs to beat back any growing complacency. Death may be inevitable for all of us, but there is no reason to hurry it in.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.


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