'Potential to exponentially spread this': Spring break partying could lead to spike in coronavirus cases, experts say

Disregard for public health measures from spring breakers and pandemic-weary tourists in South Florida will likely result in a spike of COVID-19 cases, health experts say.

Modeling suggests there’s going to be a “bump” in the curve, according to Dr. David Andrews, associate professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and vice chair for pathology laboratories at Jackson Health System.

“Everyone is concerned, and the University of Miami epidemiologists have projected a surge to emerge from that activity post-spring break,” he said. “They’re predicting a bump in the next couple of weeks.”

Although some Floridians and out-of-town vacationers may have immunity from prior infection or the vaccines, what worries experts most is the highly transmissible coronavirus variant B.1.1.7 is quickly becoming the dominant variant in Florida.

The B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the U.K., accounts for about 50% of the positive cases sampled at Jackson Health, Andrews said. Experts say it could outpace the speed of vaccinations.

“What we’re seeing is an expansion of the U.K. variant in the Miami-Dade County,” he said. The more B.1.1.7 spreads, the more it’s likely to evolve into something more dangerous, he added.

In addition to this threat, experts are keep an eye out for the B.1.526 variant that could be brought in from New York. This variant, first detected in late November in New York City, has since cropped up in neighboring states.

By Jan. 2021, the variant represented 3% of samples analyzed by researchers, rising to 12.3% by mid-February, according to a study by scientists at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons that has yet to be peer-reviewed.

Although the impact of the new B.1.526 variant on transmissibility, disease severity and risk of infection is still unknown, health experts are particularly worried because it contains a mutation associated with reinfection in other variants.

“If a large number of these people are coming from New York, that would be a matter of concern,” Andrews said.

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It may not be a matter of “if,” said Dr. Jay Wolfson, professor of public health medicine and pharmacy and senior associate dean of Morsani College of Medicine at the University of South Florida. He saw many license plates from New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania over the weekend.

Slightly more than half of those arrested in Miami Beach over spring break live outside the area, data from the Miami Beach Police Department shows. Ultimately, Miami officials ordered an emergency 8 p.m. curfew that likely will extend well into April after the spring break season is over.

“If they brought it here, hopefully the folks here won’t be exposed,” Wolfson said.

It’s an especially dangerous scenario as many those vacationers will be meeting with family and friends for Easter, Ramadan and Passover in the next couple of weeks, said Dr. Olveen Carrasquillo, chief of internal medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

“You have a double whammy. You have another event where people gather and you have a lot of people who were out here being exposed,” Carrasquillo said. “So, you have the potential to exponentially spread this.”

Other popular vacation spots have tried to suppress spring break spread. New Orleans, which attracts thousands of tourists every year for Mardi Gras, appears to have avoided the mayhem that erupted in Miami.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards already had instituted a statewide mask mandate as well as occupancy limits on bars, restaurants and other businesses. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell went further by completely closing bars in the city, even those allowed to operate as restaurants. City officials also closed iconic Bourbon Street to cars and limited pedestrian access for the final weekend of the season.

The restrictions stopped most activities – but didn't keep students from gathering, said Dr. Susanne Straif-Bourgeois, an infectious diseases epidemiologist and professor at Louisiana State University School of Public Health. Despite the measures, she saw students partying and roaming the streets without masks and social distancing.

“People are tired, people want to party and go back to normal. It’s been a long time,” she said. “These people want to have fun, which is understandable. But again, how do you tell these young people it’s dangerous?”

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, expressed concern during a White House briefing Wednesday about people vacationing while cases in the U.S. have plateaued and vaccinations continue to roll out.

“What concerns me is the footage of what’s happening in spring breakers and people who are not continuing to implement prevention strategies while we get scaled up," she said, adding, "We need to hang in there for just a while longer."

Contributing: Dustin Barnes, Morgan Hines and Grace Hauck, USA TODAY. Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.

Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Spring break: 'Potential to exponentially spread' COVID-19, experts say