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As the so-called “stealth omicron” coronavirus subvariant fuels another wave of infections across Florida and the nation, medical experts expect it to be milder than the surges that preceded it.
This week, for the first time in months, Florida recorded an increase in new weekly COVID-19 cases, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. But most Americans are vaccinated against the disease or have been infected by the omicron variant. For those reasons, experts say, the BA.2 subvariant fueling the current rise of infections should not lead to big spikes of hospitalizations and deaths.
Florida logged 10,137 more COVID-19 infections in the week ended Thursday, the CDC reports.
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That’s higher than the average of 8,371 recorded during the previous two weeks. And it’s the first time since early December that the weekly case count has grown, showing the rise of the BA.2 subvariant.
But that rise has come slower than the original omicron strain.
Florida’s week-on-week coronavirus case count has grown steadily in the 10 days spanning March 22 through Thursday, CDC data show. But it wasn’t until Thursday that the federal agency recorded more than 10,000 cases in the week leading up to it.
It took just five days from Nov. 27, the start of the omicron wave, for the statewide week-on-week case count to surpass 10,000.
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Expert doesn’t think wave of BA.2 won’t be severe
“We wouldn’t expect to see a large number of severe cases,” University of Florida epidemiologist Dr. Ira Longini said. He and his colleagues are working on predicting how the BA.2 wave will play out statewide.
“We are expecting a rise,” he said. “I don’t think it will be steep. Probably a fairly flat curve.” As long as BA.2 remains the dominant strain infecting people, Longini expects cases to rise slowly for “three to four months,” he said, without an accompanying sharp spike in hospitalizations, as was seen during the height of previous waves.
Even as Florida’s caseload increases once more, statewide hospitalizations hit a pandemic low Friday. Medical staff across the state tended to 752 patients who tested positive for the disease, the US Health and Human Services Department reports. That includes 118 adults in intensive care units, the lowest level recorded since record keeping began July 2020.
Longini does not expect hospitalizations to rise as much as previous waves because most people have been either infected by the main omicron strain or have gotten their vaccines and booster shots.
More than 5.8 million COVID cases have been recorded in Florida since the pandemic began, the CDC reports. About 37% of those have come since Nov. 27. At least three quarters of vaccine-eligible Floridians ages 5 and older have gotten at least one shot, and about one in four are boosted, state data has shown.
Health experts for California-based medical company Kinsa, which monitors readings from “smart” thermometers across the nation to detect infectious outbreaks, said BA.2 should be less dangerous than previous versions of the virus.
“While lab data indicated BA.2 may have features that could make it more severe, this hasn’t played out in the real world,” the company said Friday in a statement. “The severity looks similar to the original omicron subtype (BA.1) and immunity from a prior BA.1 infection or being fully vaccinated and boosted holds up well against BA.2 (70%+ of the US population has some degree of immunity to omicron).”
COVID-19 death toll back at pre-omicron levels
Meanwhile, Florida’s weekly COVID death toll has fallen back to pre-omicron levels.
The state’s fatality count grew by 127 residents since March 25, a comparison of data from the CDC and Florida Health Department shows. That’s the lowest seven-day sum since the weekend Dec. 24.
The respiratory illness has killed at least 73,244 Floridians since the start of the pandemic. State health officials in June stopped publishing infections and deaths among nonresidents who test positive in the state, concealing the total number of cases and victims.
The majority of Florida’s fatalities were documented after May 1 of last year, when COVID vaccines became widely available, for free, to residents ages 16 and older. Most victims since then lacked inoculation, CDC data indicate. Florida health officials choose not to publish vaccination status of residents who succumb to the disease, but share the data with the federal agency, which combines it with information from other states and reports it weeks later.
Almost 16.9 million Floridians have gotten at least one shot in the arm as of Thursday, the CDC says. That number is about 1.5 million people higher than what the state reported March 25. But it does not mean inoculations increased by that amount. The CDC routinely reports much higher numbers than Florida health officials do.
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CDC representatives could not be immediately reached Friday afternoon to explain the seven-figure discrepancy between its figures and the state’s. Part of the difference, the CDC has said, is it counts federal personnel stationed in Florida, while the state Health Department might not.
The CDC has logged almost 5.6 million booster shots administered in Florida, compared with state health officials’ count of 5.1 million from March 25.
The Florida Department of Health now publishes coronavirus statistics every other week, instead of weekly. It should issue its next report April 8. But it regularly sends data to the CDC. This makes week-to-week comparison of state data impossible.
Chris Persaud is The Palm Beach Post’s data reporter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.