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Florida’s coronavirus death toll rose faster in the past week than any other state, though that increase was among the state’s smallest since the pandemic started.
Federal data shows the state added 262 victims since the state Health Department’s last COVID-19 report published June 3. That’s the highest seven-day increase since mid-April, but lower than most weeks. Immunity from vaccinations and prior infections, along with new antiviral treatments, have helped stop severe illness.
Still, that’s more new victims counted in Florida than California (173) and New York (174), which posted the second- and third-most new deaths, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention said.
While Florida is a large, warm-weather state like California and Texas, its residents tend to be older than the populace of those places, so the average Floridian is more susceptible to succumbing to the deadly respiratory disease. It has been especially fatal to the elderly.
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Florida’s official death toll stood Friday at 74,852 residents. But that excludes more than 3,000 victims who died in 2020 from March to October and for which physicians listed the disease as a main cause of death, a report released Monday by the Florida Auditor General revealed.
The state Health Department has said that listing COVID on a person’s death certificate is not enough for Florida to add them to its tally. And the department does not plan to add the deaths auditors reported.
Florida’s COVID caseload increased by 76,510 infections, the second-biggest number in the U.S. after California, the CDC reported. Florida, the third-most populous state, logged more cases than Texas, the second-most.
Despite rising COVID cases in Florida, fewer tests being taken
The number of new infections is the highest weekly count since Feb. 11. But it’s only slightly higher than the 69,000 recorded in the week leading up to June 3. That tally misses many infections detected by at-home tests, or among people who caught the disease but felt no symptoms and never got tested.
Local sewage tests, meanwhile, reveal exponential spikes in coronavirus levels.
Palm Beach County on Monday posted its second-highest coronavirus wastewater level, readings from Biobot Analytics found.
The Loxahatchee River District, which sends north county sewage samples to the Boston-based laboratory, found 3,715 viral fragments for every milliliter of wastewater, more than twice as much since its last test, May 16, and the most since Jan. 3.
“(Fewer) people are testing because they’re not feeling as bad,” said Dr. Alina Alonso, director of the state-run Palm Beach County Health Department. “Which in turn makes it more spreadable, because you’re not testing.”
Sewage systems across the state in counties such as Miami-Dade, Hillsborough and Pinellas also have posted steady increases. Only in Orange County, home to Orlando, have viral counts in wastewater fallen since late May.
Between 20% and 25% of tests statewide have come back positive in the past week, the CDC estimates, the highest level since January.
When former White House coronavirus coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx visited West Palm Beach in May, she warned that the South should expect a summertime surge, especially in Florida, where people gather indoors to avoid the heat. The airborne pathogen spreads faster indoors in poor ventilation.
Florida has logged almost 6.3 million cases since the pandemic started.
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CDC considers some Florida counties ‘high-risk’
Cases and hospitalizations have climbed so fast that the CDC recommends indoor masking for most people in Florida’s peninsula so that hospitals don’t become strained with an influx of COVID patients.
All but four counties south of Interstate 4 — Manatee, Hardee, Glades and Hendry — are at high risk for COVID impacting their health-care systems, the CDC’s Community Level system reported Thursday. Alachua County, home to Gainesville, and every east coast county except St. Johns are in that category.
In high-risk counties, infection tallies have soared past 200 cases for every 100,000 residents in the past week. Over that same time period, either COVID hospitalizations have risen past 10 per 100,000 in the same period, or at least 10% of hospital beds are occupied by patients who tested positive.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said in January his administration would report patients who came to the hospital with COVID separately from those who tested positive while there. That has yet to happen.
Hospitals statewide counted 2,873 COVID-positive patients Friday, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department reported, the most recorded since Feb. 24.
About 10% of adult patients lie in ICUs, a ratio mostly unchanged since the end of the main omicron variant wave, and lower than almost any point during the pandemic. Omicron subvariants are driving the latest wave of coronavirus infections. The BA.2.12.1 comprises 58.5% to 66% of infections nationwide, the CDC estimates.
The rising BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants together account for an estimated 9% to about 18%. They have been found in dozens of lab tests conducted since late April in Florida, according to the GISAID initiative, an open-access virus-genomics consortium that collects samples worldwide.
The main omicron strain may have already infected 56% to 61% of Floridians, the CDC estimates. The federal agency arrived at those figures by examining a sample of 1,685 antibody tests collected from commercial labs from Feb. 1 to 21. It’s unclear how much protection these specialized antibodies grant against severe illness from an omicron subvariant infection.
Vaccination levels remain mostly unchanged statewide since the initial omicron wave crashed in February.
More than 16.7 million Florida residents have gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, CDC figures show. But that’s about 1.3 million more than what Florida health officials said June 3 in their most recent biweekly report.
The CDC counts federal personnel and others in Florida whom state health officials don’t. At the same time, the state Health Department overcounts inoculations by more than 600,000 people because vaccine providers have been erroneously classifying out-of-staters as Florida residents.
More than 5.9 million residents have gotten boosters, the CDC says. State health officials say that number is more than 5.2 million.
Chris Persaud is The Palm Beach Post’s data reporter. Email him at [email protected]
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