Florida COVID: Cases drop on Treasure Coast in September, but experts warn of winter surge

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Pandemically speaking, autumn is off to a promising start on the Treasure Coast.

The region recorded 1,848 new COVID-19 infections in September, a 76% drop from August, marking the second consecutive month of decline and the second-lowest monthly infections of 2022.

For the first time since the week of May 12, Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties each received a “low” COVID-19 Community Levels ranking from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the week of Sept. 29.

► August: Sixth COVID wave on Treasure Coast ends

► July: One in four locals has tested positive for COVID

► June: Vaccinations increase for first time since March

The three counties retained the low rating the week of Oct. 6, meaning that while locals should continue practicing common-sense health habits such as avoiding contact with people who have suspected or confirmed COVID-19 and staying up to date on vaccination, mask-wearing is optional.

TCPalm calculated September statistics from Sept. 9-Oct. 6, due to the Florida Department of Health’s biweekly publication of coronavirus reports. Unlike in August, calculated July 29-Sept. 8, each county last month saw a decrease in infections in addition to the Treasure Coast as a whole:

  • Indian River: 375 cases (78% decrease from August)

  • St. Lucie: 988 (-76%)

  • Martin: 485 (-74%).

September’s shorter calculation period, four weeks compared to August’s six, may play a part in these declines.

Local deaths and hospitalizations also trended downward. Statewide, about 63,000 new infections were recorded compared to nearly 277,000 in August, a 77% drop.

Vaccinations, however, plummeted both on the Treasure Coast and across Florida. Celebrating the end of the pandemic would be premature, according to the country’s top infectious disease authority.

“I don’t think we can say the end — being no more COVID — is in sight,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said during an Oct. 4 webinar hosted by the University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism. “When you’re talking about a pandemic of this nature, we have had multiple waves, we’ve had valleys and peaks in the evolution of the outbreak as new variants came along. Right now, it’s all relative.”

Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, acknowledged that while infection, hospitalization and death rates are headed in the right direction, “We are entering into the winter months, where no matter what the respiratory disease is, there’s always a risk of an uptick.”

Survey: 20% of adults haven’t heard of omicron booster

Time will tell whether the Treasure Coast can keep a seventh wave of coronavirus infections at bay. Medical and public health experts’ guidance on how to accomplish this feat hasn’t wavered: Get vaccinated.

Fewer than 900 people in the tri-county region got their first vaccine dose in September, a 39% decrease from August.

A 70% majority of locals had received at least one dose through Oct. 6, a proportion that may have passed for adequate in early 2021, when coronavirus vaccines became widely available to the general public. Now that omicron and its subvariants have been circulating in the U.S. for 10 months, booster shots could pave a path toward herd immunity.

This August 2022 photo provided by Pfizer shows vials of the company's updated COVID-19 vaccine during production in Kalamazoo, Mich.
This August 2022 photo provided by Pfizer shows vials of the company's updated COVID-19 vaccine during production in Kalamazoo, Mich.

“Naturally acquired immunity is more long-lasting and robust compared to vaccine-induced immunity, which is narrowly focused on the spike protein, and wanes much faster,” said Edwin Michael, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida College of Public Health. “Currently, immunity levels are high because of these differential effects arising from vaccines and past infections.

“However, it is possible that total immunity will begin to wane significantly sometime from mid-next year.”

Following guidance from the Food and Drug Administration, the CDC on Sept. 1 recommended an updated booster dose that targets the BA.4 and BA.5 omicron subvariants. People 12 and older who completed their primary vaccination series or got a previous booster at least two months prior are eligible for the free booster.

Yet less than half of fully vaccinated Floridians had received any kind of booster as of Oct. 6, CDC records show, whether it be the first boosters introduced last year or the latest omicron boosters. About 46% of Treasure Coast residents had gotten a first booster or an additional dose, recommended for the immunocompromised.

That may be due to a lack of awareness, according to a September survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Roughly 20% of the over 1,500 U.S. adults surveyed said they’d read or heard “nothing at all” about the updated booster, while 31% reported hearing “a little.”

Knowledge increased with age; 61% of people 65 and older said they’d heard “some” or “a lot” about the updated booster compared with 33% of people 18-29. Democrats were most likely to be informed, with 58% having heard “some” or “a lot,” followed by independents (51%) and Republicans (44%).

Florida children remain disproportionately unprotected against severe infection; 97% under the age of 5 and 75% of those 5-11 were unvaccinated through Oct. 6, according to DOH data. By comparison, 6% of adults 65 and older were unvaccinated.

The BA.5 omicron subvariant remains the most dominant nationwide, though it’s slowly been receding as new mutations take hold. It accounted for 79% of infections the week ending Oct. 8 compared to 87% seven weeks earlier, according to the CDC. BA.4 cases have dwindled while BA.4.6 cases increased. Also on the rise are BF.7 and BA.2.75.

“We should anticipate that we very well may get another variant that would emerge that would elude the immune response that we’ve gotten from infection and/or from vaccination,” Fauci said during the USC webinar. “I hope we don’t get that … but we should not be surprised if we do.”

Hospitalizations drop in Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River

The Treasure Coast’s seven hospitals collectively treated 282 COVID-positive adult patients the week ending Oct. 6, according to a TCPalm analysis of Department of Health and Human Services records.

That’s a 49% drop from four weeks earlier, when 555 such patients were treated. Adults in the intensive care unit dropped at least 22%; hospitals don’t specify the number of patients when it’s fewer than four.

“The rate of increase in new cases and new hospitalizations is much slower than a few months ago,” said Dr. Lyssette Cardona, chair of the infectious diseases department at Cleveland Clinic Martin Health. “To keep infections trending downward, Treasure Coast residents should make sure they are up to date with their vaccinations, which have been proven to reduce the risk of serious illness and hospitalizations.”

Pediatric hospitalizations increased last month. No local hospital reported treating any COVID-positive children the week ending Sept. 8. HCA Florida Lawnwood Hospital had five pediatric patients the week ending Oct. 6.

Though reported coronavirus deaths may lag weeks or even months behind death dates, HHS records show 58 local deaths in September, compared to 112 in August. Over 2,700 Treasure Coast residents have lost their lives to the virus.

With Thanksgiving about six weeks away, Cardona stressed the importance of getting boosted before traveling and gathering around the table with loved ones.

“We are in a good place right now,” Cardona said, “but we must remain vigilant to reduce the risk of serious illness and keep hospitalizations low.”

Lindsey Leake is TCPalm’s projects reporter. She has an M.A. in Science Writing from Johns Hopkins University, an M.A. in Journalism and Digital Storytelling from American University and a B.A. from Princeton University. Follow her on Twitter @NewsyLindsey, Facebook @LindseyMLeake and Instagram @newsylindsey. Call her at 772-529-5378 or email her at lindsey.leake@tcpalm.com.

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This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: COVID in Florida: Sept. 2022 cases ebb in Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River