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COVID-19 cases across Florida have mushroomed alongside a modest increase in hospitalizations.
Florida’s COVID-19 caseload increased by 304% for the week of Dec. 15-21, an increase of over 50,000. More than 76,000 cases were recorded in total this week, according to Tuesday’s White House community profile report.
With the cases mounting, Mary Mayhew, president and CEO of the Florida Hospital Association, said it is “critical” to monitor the recent increases but too soon to tell if the trend will continue.
The increase is being attributed to omicron, which was first detected in Florida on Dec. 7. Thought to be milder and more transmissible than past variants, it outcompeted delta in the U.S. to become the dominant variant in less than a month, prompting a briefing from Central Florida’s largest hospital system on Tuesday and again Thursday.
“We’re trying to compare it to the rate of increase that we experienced with delta,” Mayhew said. “What occurred during delta was a rapid escalation in hospitalizations and then a fairly rapid decline. It is hard to predict with the omicron variant.”
During delta’s peak, the state recorded over 150,000 new cases per week for several weeks.
Wednesday and Thursday brought the largest one-day increase in cases since early September, with 20,194, then 32,869 new cases reported in a single day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many Central Florida counties are labeled emerging hotspots, whereas Orange is labeled a hotspot, which means COVID-19 is burdening resources.
COVID-19 hospital admissions increased by 37% for the week of Dec. 14-20 compared to the week before. The state still has a low number of hospitalized patients, 1,913, according to data from the Department of Health & Human Services, compared to more than 17,000 people who were hospitalized during the delta surge’s peak.
In Central Florida, hospitalizations have not surged even as positive COVID-19 test results have climbed, said AdventHealth’s executive director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiologist Dr. Vincent Hsu. As of Thursday, 120 patients are hospitalized throughout the system, he said.
“I am of the opinion, as more time goes by, based on our observations, that we will probably not see a surge [in hospitalizations] as significant as we had seen this summer,” Hsu said. “But ... it’s too early to tell.”
Hsu acknowledges hospitalizations can sometimes lag weeks behind infections.
In the past, positivity rates at AdventHealth’s Centra Care urgent care clinics have predicted an increase in hospitalizations. Centra Care’s single-day COVID-19 positivity rate on Thursday was 27%, Hsu shared, up from 21% on Tuesday.
He and Mayhew are also concerned because though multiple studies suggest omicron is less likely to cause severe illness than other variants, it is also more infectious.
“If it affects a larger percentage of the population than delta did, even though it may be less severe illness, we still will see a certain percentage that will require hospitalization,” Mayhew said.
Even if there are fewer COVID-19 hospitalizations, hospitals could be stretched for capacity given that other illnesses are also peaking, Mayhew said. Respiratory illnesses tend to surge in the winter and Florida gets an influx of new seasonal residents from all over the country, adding to the number of people hospitals may need to care for.
“It is that combined impact of increasing COVID hospitalizations along with seasonal, higher non-COVID hospitalizations that we are obviously preparing for,” Mayhew said. “Right now, hospitals will be analyzing their staffing models. They’ll be evaluating their inventory of all of the necessary resources, the masks the gowns, the gloves, to ensure adequate supplies.”
The Biden administration has stock-piled millions of gowns, masks, and ventilators for any state that needs them, said President Joe Biden in a Tuesday speech.
Central Floridians can help prevent a surge over the holidays by getting vaccinated or boosted, Hsu said. Double-masking or wearing a medical-grade mask may be crucial given that omicron is better at evading immunity from vaccines or prior infections, he added.
About 50 to 60% of the people who recently tested positive for COVID-19 at AdventHealth Centra Care were fully vaccinated without a booster, said AdventHealth spokesperson Jeff Grainger on Tuesday.
Holiday celebrations can still go on, Hsu said.
“Enjoy the holidays, maybe take those steps that will certainly increase the chances you’ll have a very safe and happy holiday,” he said.