North Florida braces for new COVID surge

Local COVID-19 cases started rising last week, leading local health officials to believe another pandemic wave may be developing.

According to UF Health Shands CEO Ed Jimenez, the COVID-positive patient count is increasing, and he indicated that a report released by the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute on Friday projects various omicron scenarios that include a possible spike in late January and early February.

“There’s no question the numbers are creeping back up again, but there’s no way we can say it’s omicron, yet,” said Jimenez during a virtual press conference Monday, adding that it will be two to three weeks before they can identify which COVID variant is responsible for the increase.

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The new omicron variant is three times more transmissible than the delta variant—which taxed local hospitals in the late summer—but it appears to be less deadly.

UF Shands COVID-positive patients numbers have increased from 11 on Dec. 13 to 21 on Monday. Last week, two COVID-postive children were admitted, but today there are zero. The patients in ICU have remained the same at three.

“One of the things we’re hearing from overseas is that omicron may not have as hard of an ICU impact, but time will tell if that’s true or not,” Jimenez said. “The data that’s coming out from [overseas] is telling us it’s more transmissible than delta, which means it’s easier to give it to somebody else. But we’re also hearing that the rate of ICU is lesser overseas than delta was.”

North Florida Regional Medical Center reported a slight increase in its COVID-positive patient census but nothing significant, said spokesperson Lauren Lettelier in an email on Monday.

According to the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) COVID-19 Weekly Situation report state overview for Dec. 10 to Dec. 16, the new case positivity rate as of Friday was 5.4 percent—more than double the previous week.

Total cases in the state also doubled from 13,482 on the week of Dec. 3 to 29,568 during the week of Dec. 10.

Despite a local uptick in child vaccinations, overall, vaccine doses administered in Florida are declining, with 624,058 doses administered the week of Dec. 3 compared to 448,212 doses administered the week of Dec. 10. Overall, 70 percent of the Florida population is vaccinated, including 90 percent of those 65 and older and 12 percent of those ages 5 to 12.

Alachua County is now classified as having a high transmission rate with 71.1 cases per 100,000 population, including a new case positivity rate of 3 percent as of Dec. 16.

“We are thankful that 851 people received their first dose of the vaccine last week,” Alachua County posted to its Facebook page on Monday. “COVID hospitalizations are trending up slowly. We were at a low of 13 several weeks ago. We are currently at 38, 13 of which are in the ICU and 4 on ventilators. The vast majority of those hospitalized are unvaccinated.”

Among COVID-19 patients at North Florida Regional Medical Center 89 percent are unvaccinated. At UF Health Shands, 75 percent of COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated.

Jimenez indicated that, while the omicron variant may not lead to more people in the ICU compared to the delta variant, he still projects hospitals will start filling up due to the transmissibility of omicron and the high percentage of unvaccinated people in Florida.

“I don’t think we’re going to escape it, but I think it will be different,” he said. “The last one [delta], we filled our ICUs. At Shands Hospital in particular, we had COVID patients spread out across seven different ICUs. This time I think we’ll see fewer ICUs in play, but I would not be surprised at the peak we’ll have equal or more total [patients] than the last time around.”

Heading into back-to-back holiday weekends where people will be congregating, Jimenez encouraged people to gather outdoors instead of indoors, maintain appropriate space, wear masks and know the vaccination status of the people around you.

To stay updated on latest COVID-19 related data visit the Alachua County COVID-19 Dashboard.

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