It’s been one year since COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Florida, but the virus variants continue to move at a fast pace, causing the positivity rate in Alachua County to more than double last week.
According to the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) weekly COVID-19 report for Dec. 17 -23, Alachua County’s new case positivity rate is 7.9 percent, up from 3 percent the previous week. Cases per 100,000 population in Alachua County rose sharply from 71.1 to 248.2.
So far the increase in case numbers has not translated to higher hospitalizations in Alachua County, aligning with early data showing the omicron variant is less severe than the delta variant. According to the county’s COVID-19 dashboard, hospitalizations actually ticked down last week, from 38 on Dec. 17 to 34 on Dec. 24. ICU patients dropped from 13 to eight.
In a virtual press conference last week, UF Health Shands CEO Ed Jimenez said local health officials expect to eventually see as many COVID-positive patients as ever in coming weeks, but not as many in the ICU.
“I don’t think we’re going to escape it, but I think it will be different,” said Jimenez, who cited a UF Emerging Pathogens Institute report projecting various omicron scenarios that include a possible spike in late January and early February.
Statewide, case numbers shot upward last week, more than quadrupling from 29,568 the week of Dec. 10 to 125,201 for the week of Dec. 17.
Florida’s overall new case positivity rate is 13.8 percent and the cases per 100,000 is 569.7. Broward (19.1) and Dade (16.6) counties top the state in new case positivity rates, despite having the state’s highest vaccination rates at 81 percent and 92 percent, respectively.
Overall state vaccine rates for ages 5 and older is 71 percent, with Alachua County (68 percent) just short of the state average. Other area counties fall far short of the average, including Columbia (46 percent), Dixie (40 percent), Gilchrist (43 percent), Levy (52 percent) Suwannee (39 percent) and Union (53 percent).
Alachua County reported 1,074 vaccinations last week. Unvaccinated patients continue to comprise the majority of hospitalized patients in Alachua County, with 89 percent of the current COVID-19 patients at North Florida Regional Medical Center not vaccinated and 78 percent of hospitalized COVID-19 patients at UF Health not vaccinated, according to the county dashboard.
The highest new case positivity rate reported in Alachua County in 2021 was on Aug. 13 at 14.8 percent. The lowest positivity rate of the year was reported on Dec. 3, just three weeks ago, at 1.8 percent.
The new omicron variant is three times more transmissible than the delta variant, researchers say. In its Dec. 17 weekly report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that, “CDC expects that anyone with omicron infection can spread the virus to others, even if they are vaccinated or don’t have symptoms.”
The CDC continues to stress that there are tools to slow the spread and stay healthy.
“There really is no need to panic,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told NBC’s “Today” show. “We are in a very different place than we were two years ago: We have vaccines, we have boosters.”
Last week’s CDC report emphasized similar things.
“Vaccines remain the best public health measure to protect people from COVID-19, slow transmission, and reduce the likelihood of new variants emerging,” the report said. “CDC continues to recommend wearing a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high community transmission, regardless of vaccination status.”
Florida overall is labeled as a “high community transmission” area, according to the CDC and the FDOH.
Alachua County remains in a “substantial community transmission.” The CDC defines substantial community transmission as new cases per 100,000 in the 50-99.99 range and an overall positivity rate between 8 to 9.99 percent.
Due to a potential shortage in healthcare staffing, the CDC loosened rules for medical staff who test positive by lowering the quarantine time from 10 to seven days. It also issued guidance saying healthcare workers “who have received all recommended COVID-19 vaccine doses, including a booster, do not need to quarantine at home following high-risk exposures.”
The same goes for non-healthcare professionals who are fully vaccinated. The CDC’s updated isolation guidelines say people “do NOT need to quarantine after contact with someone who had COVID-19 unless they have symptoms. However, fully vaccinated people should get tested 5-7 days after their exposure, even if they don’t have symptoms and wear a mask indoors in public for 14 days following exposure or until their test result is negative.”