Experts: Florida at 'point of worry' as COVID-19 cases spike and hospitalizations rise
The first week of 2021 brought record COVID-19 case numbers to Florida and Brevard County. Experts say this new spike is only just beginning, and increased social distancing iscritical to keep hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.
One expert went so far as to warn that Florida is a point with the infection spread "to be really worrying."
In 2020, Brevard never saw daily case increases in the 300s. But on Monday, cases rose by unprecedented 397 cases in a 24 hour period. Since then, cases have been more than 300 a day. Thursday set Brevard’s current record of a total of 434 new cases in a 24-hour period. Brevard ranks 16th in the state for COVID-19 cases. Dade County is has the highest with 321,555 as of Friday.
According to DOH, which some experts say underestimates its statistics, Brevard's positivity rate has risen from 9% for last week of 2002, to over 10% during the first week of the New Year. On Tuesday, Brevard's positivity rate reached 18%, but by Friday was 10.52%.
Moreover, as of Friday, Florida has seen 22 cases of a more contagious variant of the virus first discovered in the UK. The first case of the mutated virus in Florida was recorded in Martin County; the locations of the other cases have not been publicly noted. Cindy Prins, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida, said it’s reasonable to assume the strain has already reached Brevard County.
“I don't know if the variant (is causing the increase), or if it's going to be an additive effect and then just contribute to even higher numbers of cases. So, I think it's, you know, we're at a point where we need to really be worrying about this.”
The Agency for Health Care Administration maintains current statistics for hospital occupancy, including the number of COVID-19 patients currently undergoing treatment in each county. Brevard’s number of simultaneous COVID-19 patients changes almost hourly, but has steadily crept upward from 70-80 in November and early December to 100 on Dec. 31 to 150 on Saturday.
In total, as of Friday, the county has seen 23,513 cases and 540 deaths. The state has seen 1,449,252 cases and 22,666 deaths.
Many experts predicted a spike in COVID-19 cases would follow lax social distancing over the holiday season.
“Probably most of what we're seeing now is a Christmas spike,” Prins said. “Unfortunately, we also have New Year's (case transmission), so I'm concerned that yes, it is holiday related and we're not at the end of it yet,” Prins warned.
Edwin Michael, an epidemiologist and a professor at University of South Florida College of Public Health, said Florida’s cases have entered the beginning of an exponential growth phase predicted in his SEIRcast model. The state will see a peak in February between 194,000 to 55,000 daily cases depending on the strength of social measures, vaccination rates and vaccine compliance, he said Saturday morning.
In his report released at the beginning of December, Michael predicted that the surge would “greatly stress and even overwhelm” hospitals. Writing from London on Saturday, he noted that hospitals in the United Kingdom are already struggling to handle COVID-19 patients, a “sign of things to come if action is not taken now.”
“With the late and slow rate of vaccine roll out, not to mention the possibility of the new virus variant establishing and spreading in the US, we really need to convey that the only way to containing the coming wave is to ramp up social protective measures (face masks and physical distancing),” he told FLORIDA TODAY in an email.
It doesn't appear the state will take any measures to mandate social distancing or roll back its reopening. After Florida reported a record 17,783 infections Wednesday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the state would “categorically not allow any local government to lock people down.” Wednesday’s record was toppled the next day when cases increased by 19,816.
Hospital bed capacity at Brevard’s seven major hospitals is holding at about 25%. ICU bed capacity stands at about 20% capacity (32 out of 165 beds were available Saturday morning). Across the state’s major hospitals, total bed capacity stood at about 20% and ICU bed capacity stood at about 16% Saturday morning. Nearly 7,500 COVID-19 patients were being treated in those hospitals.
Prins said the state hospitals are managing the current influx of COVID-19 patients. However, there’s a delay of several weeks between the date people are infected and the time they enter the hospital system.
“It's probably about two weeks from the time that people get infected that you really start to see the cases visibly increased, and another two weeks to see those hospitalizations,” she said.
Bailey Gallion is the business and development reporter for FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Gallion at 321-242-3786 or email@example.com.