Polk County has seen a rapid rise in new COVID cases over the past week as statewide cases doubled. These numbers are leading local health officials to suspect the omicron variant is here to kick off a fourth wave of the pandemic.
There were 496 new infections reported in Polk from Dec. 10 to 16, according to the Florida Department of Health's latest report. That's an increase of more than 32% in a week. Across Florida, new COVID cases more than doubled to 29,568 cases reported this past week — the highest in a single week since late September.
"It's quite alarming," Dr. Joy Jackson, director of Florida Department of Health in Polk County, told the Ledger.
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The rapidly increasing number of local COVID cases is 'likely' a result of the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus, according to Jackson. The highly transmissible variant was first identified in South Africa about three weeks ago.
"I don't have confirmation with actual lab results for our county," she said. "Based on the behavior and rapid escalation, I suspect it's omicron."
Polk's weekly positivity rate rose slightly from 2.7% to 3.2% of all individuals tested, according to the state report. It continues to creep upward, but remains under the 5% positivity rate used by the World Health Organization as an indicator of control over the virus' spread within a community.
Florida's weekly positive rate more than doubled during the past week, from 2.6% to 5.4%, which could be an indicator of what's to come.
"We are definitely seeing an increase of COVID cases in our county, and I encourage individuals to keep that in mind when they make their holiday plans," Jackson said. "We are starting our fourth surge."
Last year, Polk County saw its second wave of COVID infections start during the holiday season lasting through January. Jackson said there are some crucial differences between last year and now, primarily that COVID vaccines have become widely available.
"Our No. 1 priority is getting people that first dose of the vaccine," she said. "People who have not yet gotten vaccinated should start the series."
Jackson said she also encourages all adults to go receive their booster shot as approved by the FDA for six months after completing the initial two-shot series.
The number of people seeking vaccinations in Polk and statewide has decreased during the past week. There were 2,747 doses of COVID vaccine administered in the county, down nearly 9% from 2,992 a week prior. Across the state, the decline was more dramatic – a drop of more than 17% from 528,286 to 448,212.
It's estimated about 63% of Polk residents have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, according to the state report. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's COVID Data Tracker estimates about 53.4% of the county's population is fully vaccinated.
To stay safe this holiday season, Jackson she said would highly encourage anyone who is sick to stay home and away from other people. If their symptoms are consistent with COVID — headache, loss of smell and taste, nasal congestion, cough, sore throat, muscle pain, fever or difficulty breathing — people should seek out testing.
COVID testing sites can be found throughout the county by going online to floridahealthcovid19.gov/testing-sites. Nomi Health continues to offer free testing at three sites in Polk County:
Bartow Regional Medical Center, 2200 Osprey Blvd., Bartow
Gil Jones Center, 3425 US-17 N, Winter Haven
RP Funding Center, 701 W. Lime St., Lakeland
These sites are generally open seven days a week, according to Jackson, but will have modified hours and days during the holidays. The Gil Jones Center will be the only location open Christmas Eve, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m, and all sites will be closed on Christmas Day. For more information or to register, visit testing.nomihealth.com/easy_registration/26/onsite.
The county health department also offers free COVID testing at its Auburndale Testing Center, 245 E. Lake Ave. Appointments can be scheduled by calling 863-519-7911. It will be closed on Dec. 24 and 25.
Jackson said those looking to prevent COVID from spreading at a small holiday event among close friends and family can consider asking everyone who attends to take a rapid test. Other safety measures can include holding the celebrations outdoors as much as possible and if anyone is having symptoms, asking them to head home.
The self-testing kits now sold in many pharmacies can be a relatively inexpensive solution to those wanting to know quickly whether or not if they have COVID, Jackson said.
"If an individual is having symptoms and can do a rapid test that’s negative, it’s somewhat reassuring," Jackson said. "If their symptoms are classic and rapid test is negative, they should still follow up with PCR test. If you have symptoms and positive rapid test, you’ve got COVID."
Individuals should call their doctor's office prior to their visit if believing they might have COVID, Jackson said.
In previous waves, many Polk residents reported to emergency rooms thinking they might have COVID because testing wasn't as widely available, Jackson said. She encouraged people with mild to moderate symptoms to stay home and call their doctor to avoid overwhelming the county's emergency departments.
"We want people only to use the ER if they are significantly ill," Jackson said. "Save the ER for those who are seriously ill, having warning signs or are at high-risk of complications."
The CDC lists the following warning signs for those with COVID in need of immediate medical attention: trouble breathing; persistent pain or pressure in their chest, confusion; inability to stay awake; and pale blue or gray skin, lips or nail beds.
Sara-Megan Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7545. Follow on Twitter @SaraWalshFL.
This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Omicron variant suspected in Polk's 32% increase in new COVID cases