Omicron's end may be in sight.
Despite unprecedented positive case numbers, the latest data show COVID-19 cases in Florida and Alachua County are climbing at a slower rate. UF researchers now predict the omicron variant surge could peak within the next week—but not before affecting most Floridians.
"Because of the significant growth in reported COVID-19 cases due to omicron SARS-CoV-2 during December 2021, we have revised our model projections," researchers at UF's Emerging Pathogens Institute stated in a Jan. 4 report. "We find that the omicron wave in Florida is likely to cause many more infections than occurred during the delta wave, potentially infecting most of the state’s population in this wave alone."
The report's key findings include the fact that omicron infections tend to be less severe than those caused by delta, particularly among vaccinated people.
"This means that despite causing more infections, it is possible that substantially fewer deaths will result from the omicron wave," the report states. "We estimate that omicron will cause one third as many deaths as were caused by delta."
The report also addresses the shortage of COVID-19 tests.
"Due to limitations in testing capacity, milder infections in vaccines, and reduced sensitivity of some tests to the omicron variant, we believe that a smaller fraction of omicron infections will be detected as cases compared to previous waves," researchers said. "We expect reported cases to peak in the first half of January 2022."
That projection aligns with the latest Florida Department of Health (FDOH) data, which the state released Friday. For the week of Dec. 31 to Jan. 6, Florida saw a record 397,114 new cases, a 25 percent gain from the previous week—but a notably slower increase than the state has experienced over the last month.
The state's positivity rate increased to 31.2 percent, with Alachua County reporting slightly less at 27.7 percent. That increase also slowed after Florida's positivity rate more than doubled for three consecutive weeks in December.
In Alachua County, cases rose each week starting Dec. 10, when the county recorded 158 new cases. New cases rose to 194 the next week, followed by 677 and then 2,072 for the week ending Dec. 31. The county recorded a record 3,789 new cases last week.
Case fatality rate for Florida was reported at 1.4 percent in the weekly report and mortality rate per 100,000 was 285 per 100,000 population.
According to the UF models report, the first known case of the omicron variant in Florida was reported on Dec. 7. That week Alachua County hospitals reported 34 COVID-19 patients, including 12 in ICU. By Monday—just over a month later—that number had risen to 189, including 57 in ICU, according to the county dashboard.
Pediatric cases in Alachua County zeroed out after Sept. 27 and remained at zero until six patients were reported on Jan. 5. The total climbed to nine patients on Jan. 7 but dropped back down to seven as of Monday.
Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS) reports 406 student COVID-19 cases and 70 staff cases in the last 10 days. When students and faculty left for winter break, the new cases report was less than 10, according to the ACPS COVID-19 dashboard.
At the height of the delta variant surge last August, 6.7 percent of the ACPS student population were in quarantine. Since the return of school last week, that rate reached 3 percent and dropped Monday to 2.5 percent.
The UF report states that booster vaccinations are key to increasing protection of the highly contagious omicron variant.
"Preliminary data suggest that boosting may dramatically increase protection against disease caused by omicron infections," the report states. "It takes 10-14 days for protection to develop post-vaccination. Because relatively few Floridians have received booster doses at this point, we do not consider their effect in these results. Nonetheless, we recommend eligible people receive boosters, and we expect that an increase in booster uptake will result in more optimistic trajectories for the omicron wave in Florida."
Data show vaccination rates continue to decline in Alachua County, with 754 being administered the week ending Jan. 7. Prior weeks reported vaccines at 1,074 on Dec. 24, then 792 on Dec. 31.
On Tuesday, the Alachua County Health Department will report the current COVID-19 status to the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) and explain a restart to the vaccine incentive program that will run from Wednesday through Feb. 28.
According to the BOCC meeting backup documents, the original incentive program resulted in about 16,000 vaccines delivered and totaled $400,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds.
"We anticipate a similar response with the booster program and estimate it will cost another $400,000, mostly for boosters," the report states. "If we achieve an 80 percent citizen vaccination rate, it will cost another $400,000, or $800,000 total for the expanded period."
The report states that, "under the Alachua County Citizen Vaccination Program, all Alachua County residents will be provided an incentive award of $25 for each COVID-19 vaccination regardless of manufacturer, including booster shots."