COVID-19 infections continue to rise, but experts aren’t ready to declare a new pandemic wave in Florida.
The state averaged more than 5,600 cases of COVID-19 a day from May 7 through Friday, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s up 20 percent from the week before. It’s the highest number of average daily cases since February.
The positivity rates in Tampa Bay and Florida also keep climbing. The state’s test positivity rate hit 14 percent, according to the most recently available federal data. Positivity was 11 percent in Pinellas County and 10 percent in Hillsborough.
Those are troubling signs as Florida approaches another pandemic summer, which has historically coincided with higher infection rates.
But experts aren’t sounding the alarm yet. At this point, the increase in infections is more of a “swell” than a wave similar to delta and omicron, said University of Florida epidemiologist Thomas Hladish.
Hladish doesn’t expect to see the explosive growth that the country saw after the arrival of the delta and omicron variants last year. If cases were going to take off like that, he said, they would have by now.
The increase is driven by an omicron subvariant called BA.2.12.1. The subvariant is more infectious than its predecessors and now accounts for nearly half of new infections in the southeast, according to CDC estimates.
Immunity from vaccination or prior infection appears to be holding for most Floridians, Hladish said. That’s why the variant is slowly “burning through a population that, either from immunity or behavior, are susceptible (to infection) right now,” he said.
That immunity will not last forever, especially when less than half of Florida residents who are eligible to get the booster have done so.
The state administered nearly 44,000 first and second doses of the COVID-19 vaccine last week, down 10 percent from the week before. And over 30,000 Floridians got boosted, down 30 percent from the week before.
Getting vaccinated and boosted is still the best way to prevent serious illness and death. It’s a message that public health experts have repeatedly echoed as the U.S. is on the verge of 1 million lives lost to COVID-19.
The U.S. could have prevented more than 300,000 deaths if every adult had been vaccinated, according to a new report from the Brown University of Public Health earlier this week.
Florida will soon surpass 6 million infections through the 26-month pandemic. It has also seen 74,178 deaths, 123 of which were added this past week.
Hospitalizations in the state are also creeping up slowly, which experts have said is an encouraging sign that prior immunity still protects most people from severe infection. Florida hospitals admitted 1,754 COVID-19 patients in the past week, up just 10 percent from the week before.
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Local hospitals are also admitting more COVID-19 patients. AdventHealth West Florida division officials reported a 60 percent increase in admissions compared to April 22. The hospital chain is treating 48 patients at its 13 hospitals between Ocala and Lake Placid.
The uptick in admissions was smaller at Baycare, where there were 133 COVID patients across its 15 hospitals in the Tampa Bay region as of Friday, up from 122 three weeks ago.
Tampa General Hospital reported 27 COVID admissions as of Friday, with five patients in intensive care.
While 67 percent of Florida’s total population is vaccinated, two doses is no longer enough against omicron, BA.2.12.1 and perhaps future variants. Vaccine immunity also wanes months after the last dose. Boosters can help, but just 26 percent of the state’s population has gotten extra shots.
There may also be trouble on the horizon. A new variant, BA.5, has taken off in South Africa, where cases have increased by over 450 percent in the past month, according to COVID-19 tracking organization Our World In Data.
When omicron first appeared in South Africa in November, cases shot up by over 2,600 percent in 2 weeks. Less than a month later, the variant arrived in the U.S., causing the worst spike so far in the pandemic.
It’s too early to tell what threat BA.5 poses here, Hladish said. Much is still unknown about how quickly BA.5 spreads and how well it evades existing immunity. So far, 56 cases of BA.5 have been detected in the U.S., including two in Florida, according to variant-tracking organization GISAID.
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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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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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