A federal health agency is recommending indoor masking in the three South Florida counties, along with six other counties in the state, a week after officials understated the COVID-19 health risk statewide.
Coronavirus infections have once again become so widespread, and hospitalizations so high, that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people mask up indoors and on public transportation in South Florida — Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties — the Tampa Bay area, and Sarasota, Polk and Alachua counties.
The recommendation is part of the CDC’s “Community Level” classification system, which tries to estimate if the respiratory disease has a low, medium or high risk of straining health-care systems in each U.S. county.
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CDC: High-risk counties and facial coverings
People in high-risk counties should wear facial coverings while indoors in public, the CDC says. The CDC wrongly classified South Florida's counties last week as medium-risk counties.
Along with Sarasota, Polk and Alachua, the Tampa Bay area-counties of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco also are now in the high-risk category.
The federal agency did not count new infections last week in any of Florida’s 67 counties, it said in a footnote on its website. That led it to understate the threat of COVID in its rating system. The state Health Department feeds such data to the CDC.
Counties categorized as high-risk have, in the past week, logged at least 200 new COVID cases for every 100,000 residents, and either 10 COVID-positive hospital patients for every 100,000 residents or at least 10% of hospital patients having the disease.
Enforcement of masking laws and fines
Local governments in Florida cannot enforce broad masking laws because of Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-dominated state Legislature. DeSantis ordered cities and counties in 2020 to stop fining people and businesses who break local laws on masking and social distancing.
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He decreed in 2021 that all past fines be nullified. And he signed legislation last November banning schools from requiring students to mask up.
Just 24% of Florida kids ages five to 11 have gotten at least one dose of the COVID vaccine, state health officials reported May 20.
Local governments can still require mask-wearing in buildings they own or lease. The federal government's mask requirements for planes, trains, buses and other public transportation was struck down April 22 by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, appointed in 2020 by then-President Donald Trump.
The number of COVID-positive hospital patients statewide broke 2,000 this week for the first time since March 3, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported Friday.
The latest spate of sickness fueled by the coronavirus omicron subvariants is now surging almost as fast as the original omicron strain. It took 24 days — May 3 to Thursday — to go from about 1,000 to 2,000 patients. During the rise of the original omicron strain, the same hospitalization increase took 20 days, from Dec. 5 to 24.
Medical staff statewide tended to 2,027 COVID-positive patients Friday, HHS reported. An estimated 11% of adult patients are in intensive-care units, about the same ratio recorded since mid-April. That statistic was higher than 20% throughout the pandemic until March, during the tail end of the surge of hospitalizations caused by the original omicron variant.
DeSantis said in January that the state Agency for Health Care Administration would report the numbers of COVID-positive patients who were in the hospital because of the disease, and how many tested positive while being admitted for some other reason. That has yet to happen.
The virus may have already infected 56% to 61% of Floridians, the CDC estimates. The federal agency arrived at those figures by examining a sample of 1,685 antibody tests collected from commercial labs from Feb. 1 to 21.
Florida’s COVID death toll rose by 136 residents since May 20, a comparison of CDC and Florida Health Department data shows. That’s on par with weekly averages calculated from state data since April 15.
Although omicron subvariants have fueled the latest wave of infections and hospitalizations since March, deaths have not spiked statewide to anywhere near the levels they did during the delta variant last summer or the original omicron variant in winter. More than 1,000 new fatalities were recorded each week during the worst of those surges.
Just under 16.7 million Florida residents have gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, CDC figures show. But that's about 1.2 million more than what Florida health officials said May 20 in their most recent biweekly report.
The CDC counts federal personnel and others in Florida whom state health officials don't. At the same time, the state Health Department overcounts inoculations by more than 600,000 people because vaccine providers have been erroneously classifying out-of-staters as Florida residents.
Just under 5.9 million residents have gotten boosters, the CDC says. State health officials say that number is just over 5.2 million.
In all, that's about three out of four Floridians with at least one shot in their arms, including about one in four with boosters, even after accounting for the state unintentionally overstating its inoculation count.
Florida’s COVID caseload grew by 66,881 since May 20, a comparison of data from the CDC and Florida Health Department shows. That’s the most recorded in one week since mid-February.
Still, infections driven by the omicron subvariants are growing more slowly compared to the original omicron onslaught in December. Health officials have logged 288,716 new infections during the 66 days since week-over-week COVID cases began climbing again statewide March 21. After Nov. 26, when omicron started taking over Florida, it took just 30 days to reach that level.
More than 6.1 million COVID cases have been documented since the start of the pandemic.
Chris Persaud is The Palm Beach Post's data reporter. Email him at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: COVID: CDC recommends indoor masking in South Florida, Tampa Bay