Florida COVID update: State breaks 50,000 total deaths, 1,554 more added to toll

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Florida’s pandemic death toll surpassed 50,000 people on Thursday, a grim milestone reached after a summer surge of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths fueled by the highly contagious delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Though the number of new cases and hospitalizations for the infectious disease have declined in Florida since the last week of August, the seven-day average of deaths reported has fluctuated and this week reached the second-highest point since the pandemic began in spring 2020.

The state reported 1,554 new deaths to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and 9,760 new cases on Thursday, according to Miami Herald calculations of the data. In all, Florida has recorded at least 3,473,873 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 50,811 deaths.

Deaths likely an undercount

But the total number of deaths is very likely an undercount due to delays and changes in reporting by the Florida Department of Health.

“It’s 50,000 of what the state actually reported but not what happened,” said Thomas Hladish, a research scientist with the University of Florida who helped create a model projecting cases and deaths during the state’s delta wave.

Hladish said Florida is almost certainly past the peak for new cases due to the delta variant, with the high point having occurred during the end of August.

But it’s harder to predict when Florida’s delta surge will have reached the peak of deaths because of delays in reporting that data and because of differences in the amount of time it takes people to die from the disease.

After Florida changed its method of reporting COVID-19 deaths in August — from the date a death was reported to the date it occurred — the most recent death data became less accurate and subject to significant revision.

“There are people who died yesterday that the state hasn’t processed yet,” Hladish said. “So their numbers for yesterday are going to continue to get revised probably for weeks.”

Typically, he said, deaths will peak after cases reach their maximum. The decline in deaths will be more spread out over time than the decline in cases, Hladish said, “because there’s a range in how long it takes people to die.”

“So whenever you’re looking at the date of death data for the state, you basically have to take the last few weeks of data and think of those as lower bounds and pretend you don’t even know them because those numbers are likely to get revised up heavily, with the most recent dates having the greatest change,” he said.

All but 112 of the deaths that Florida reported to the CDC on Thursday — or about 93% — occurred on or after Aug. 19, according to the Herald’s analysis. About 59% of the newly reported deaths occurred during the previous two weeks, the analysis showed.

Second-highest death average since pandemic began

But during the past seven days, on average, the state has added 363 deaths and 11,816 cases each day.

The 363 deaths represents Florida’s second-highest seven-day death average when tallying deaths by the date they were reported. The highest occurred on Sept. 4, with a seven-day average of 373 deaths.

COVID-19 tracker: Known Florida coronavirus cases and deaths by day and county

On Tuesday, for the first time in more than three months, the CDC released COVID-19 death rates in Florida’s 67 counties in its Community Profile Report. The report is a nationwide snapshot of where U.S. states, territories and counties stand during the pandemic, released twice a week, by the CDC.

The CDC hasn’t posted Florida county-level death data in its previous community profile reports or on its COVID Data Tracker. The Florida Department of Health also stopped including the data in its reports when it switched from daily coronavirus reports to weekly ones on June 4.

However, the CDC and the state health department are not the only government agencies that report COVID-19 deaths in Florida. Hospitals also report COVID-19 deaths to the Department of Health and Human Services, though they do not include deaths from the disease in nursing homes, prisons and other institutions.

Though not complete, hospital deaths have made up about 80% to 85% of all COVID deaths in Florida this summer, said Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist with the University of South Florida, and they are reported more quickly than the state and CDC data.

Salemi said he uses the HHS hospital suspected death data as an indicator of real-time deaths from the disease, and based on that data it appears that Florida deaths may have peaked around Sept. 1. Florida’s reporting appears to show more people dying each day toward the end of August.

But Salemi expects that as Florida continues to revise death data after initial reports, there will be more agreement on when COVID-19 deaths from the delta wave actually peaked in the state. Since deaths by date of occurrence have not yet caught up with reported deaths, Salemi expects the peak will be higher and further along in time than what the data now shows.

“We’re continuing to see more reported deaths than we’ve ever seen,” Salemi said. “We’re back filling quite a bit.”

The next wave

Though cases and hospitalizations have declined in Florida since the last week of August, Hladish said no one should make the mistake of thinking that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is going away.

As an infectious disease researcher and forecaster, Hladish said he has studied delta waves in other countries and anticipates a resurgence of the disease in Florida in the winter.

“My best guess is that it will happen early 2022,” he said, “but ... there’s nothing in any model that will allow you to predict that with any confidence. It’s looking around, looking at analogs in other time periods. There will probably be another wave. The fact that this wave was really large, that does tend to delay the next wave.”

That doesn’t mean the world is condemned to a never-ending pandemic, though. Hladish said it’s possible the virus could mutate to become less virulent even as it becomes more contagious. In addition, medical interventions are likely to improve and become more accessible not just in the United States but around the world, which is what’s needed to stop a global pandemic.

“In 10 years, will we still have COVID? Yes, it’s hard for me to see any alternative,” Hladish said. “Will it be as consequential as it is right now? That’s not likely to be true, for multiple reasons. The pharmaceutical interventions tend to improve over time. The vaccines may be reformulated and availability of vaccines may improve.

Hladish said he also has a “gut feeling” that SARS-CoV-2 may become more contagious but less virulent over time because there’s an evolutionary advantage to making people less sick.

It wouldn’t be a clean progression, he said, and it’s possible that more virulent strains would arise in the meantime. But over the long term, a virus benefits from spreading more easily without killing its host.

“If you can imagine a strain that can remain highly transmissible for a long period of time without causing severe symptoms, it will probably out-compete strains that do cause severe symptoms,” he said.

For the more immediate future, Hladish urged Floridians to prepare for another resurgence of COVID-19, possibly from a new strain and maybe in the winter.

“What we really need to do is get people to anticipate the next wave. That will happen. Get vaccinated before it,” he said.

COVID Deaths in Florida Counties

The newly released data found in the CDC’s Community Profile Report showed the state’s smaller counties had the highest death rates on a per-capita basis. The county level data is equivalent to the cumulative number of resident deaths reported by the Florida DOH on Friday.

Highlands County, near Lake Okeechobee, with a population of about 106,000, had 426 cumulative deaths per 100,000, the highest death rate in the state, the report showed.

Citrus County, population of about 150,000 and which includes Homosassa Springs, had 409 cumulative deaths per 100,000. Marion County, population of about 365,500 and whose county seat is Ocala, had 400 cumulative deaths per 100,000, according to the community profile report.

By comparison, the state’s large counties in South Florida fared better.

Miami-Dade County’s death toll sits at 7,730. That’s a rate of 285 cumulative deaths per 100,000 people since the beginning of the pandemic. From Sept. 7 to Sept. 13, Miami-Dade saw 207 deaths added to the toll, the CDC reported.

Broward County’s death toll sits at 4,090. That’s a rate of 209 cumulative deaths per 100,000 people since the beginning of the pandemic. From Sept. 7 to Sept. 13, Broward saw 186 deaths added to the toll, the CDC reported.

Palm Beach County’s death toll sits at 3,514. That’s a rate of 235 cumulative deaths per 100,000 people since the beginning of the pandemic. From Sept. 7 to Sept. 13, Palm Beach saw 127 deaths added to the toll, the CDC reported.

Monroe County’s death toll sits at 68. The county has a population less than 100,000, which means using the CDC’s death rate metric of deaths per 100,000 people would be misleading. From Sept. 7 to Sept. 13, Monroe saw 5 deaths added, the CDC reported.

Manatee County’s death toll sits at 824. That’s a rate of 204 cumulative deaths per 100,000 people since the beginning of the pandemic. From Sept. 7 to Sept. 13, Manatee saw 31 deaths added to the toll, the CDC reported.

As of the Tuesday Community Profile Report, Florida had a reported death rate of 229 cumulative deaths per 100,000 people since the start of the pandemic.

COVID-19 Vaccines in Florida

The CDC reports that all of the state’s 67 counties have a high level of community transmission of COVID, as of Thursday. Here’s how many people have been fully vaccinated in South Florida, according to the CDC.

As of the Thursday report, 11,934,140 eligible Floridians — 55.6% of the state’s population — have been fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

In Miami-Dade County, about 1,907,766 people, or 70.2% of the county’s total population, are fully vaccinated.

In Broward County, about 1,155,634 people are fully vaccinated, or 59.2% of the county’s population.

In Palm Beach County, about 844,270 people are fully vaccinated, or 56.4% of the county’s population.

In Monroe County, about 48,743 people are fully vaccinated, or 65.7% of the county’s population.

In Manatee County, about 208,728 people are fully vaccinated, or 51.8% of the county’s population.

COVID-19 hospitalizations in Florida

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Thursday report showed there were 10,247 COVID-19 patients reported from 253 Florida hospitals.

That’s 292 fewer patients than Wednesday’s report from 228 hospitals. In Thursday’s report, COVID-19 patients took up 17.53% of all inpatient hospital beds compared to about 19% in the previous day’s reporting hospitals.

Of the people hospitalized in Florida, 2,512 people were in intensive-care units, a decrease of 63 from the previous day’s report, Herald analyses show. That represents 38.14% of the ICU beds at the 253 hospitals reporting data, compared to about 38% the previous day.

Thursday’s Miami-Dade County report said there were 823 COVID patients in the county’s hospitals on Wednesday, a decrease of 52 from the previous day’s report. Of the 69 new COVID patients, 60 (86.96%) had not been vaccinated.

Broward County’s Thursday report said there were 868 COVID patients in the county’s hospitals, an increase of 32 from Wednesday’s patient population.

Miami Herald investigative reporter Sarah Blaskey contributed to this report.

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