Florida’s official coronavirus case counts continued to fall for the sixth straight week, but some of its biggest urban areas report signs of another uptick of infections as more viral mutations enter the state.
Viral loads are once again rising in the Miami, Orlando and Tampa Bay areas. And recent COVID-19 tests reveal that another potentially contagious subvariant, BA.2.75, nicknamed “centaurus,” has been in Florida since at least mid-August. Plus, the BA.4.6 subvariant continues to gain ground across the southeastern United States.
Coronavirus particles found in wastewater from Orange County, home to Orlando, have nearly doubled in the past two weeks, to about 1,677 viral parts per milliliter, Boston-based laboratory Biobot analytics reported Wednesday. It’s the highest level since July 27.
In Pinellas County, which covers St. Petersburg, viral loads in sewage have more than doubled in the same time period. In Miami-Dade, Florida’s most populous county, viral counts in wastewater samples have risen 32%.
Sewage tests from Palm Beach, Hillsborough and Seminole counties, however, continue to show flat or declining numbers of the coronavirus’ genetic material.
Wastewater can reveal COVID trends faster than official case counts. Infected people often shed the most virus at the beginning of their infection. It takes about two days for locales to send Biobot sewage samples and receive results. Nasal swab test results take longer to enter official statistics. And with the rise of at-home testing, government data misses an untold number of infections.
COVID tests conducted last month in Florida confirmed that the BA.2.75 omicron subvariant, which fueled a recent wave of infections in India, is circulating among people in the state.
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Six people in Florida tested positive for the subvariant between Aug. 14 and 30, according to results from LabCorp and Helix Laboratories. The companies sent those results last week to GISAID, a worldwide initiative that collects COVID test results.
Like the United States, India experienced a summer COVID wave of infections and hospitalizations that was shallower than the huge spikes caused by the original omicron strain and the delta variant.
How infectious are the new strains?
But scientists do not yet fully understand how infectious BA.2.75 is to people who have caught the BA.4 or BA.5 strains, which dominated Florida and the United States this summer.
The newest coronavirus vaccines, approved federally two weeks ago, target BA.4 and BA.5, but that does not mean they are weak against the centaurus subvariant.
While BA.4 and BA.5 swept the nation over the summer, death rates for unvaccinated people were more than five times higher than those who received the shots designed for the original Wuhan strain, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. The new boosters target the version of the virus that more closely resembles BA.2.75, BA.4.6 and other omicron subvariants.
The Florida Department of Health gives the CDC data on infection and death rates for people by vaccination status but keeps those numbers hidden from the public. The CDC has repeatedly declined The Palm Beach Post’s requests for Florida’s data.
As BA.4 and BA.5 wane across Florida and the nation, the BA.4.6 subvariant has slowly risen. It is responsible for an estimated 12% of new COVID infections across the Southeast, the CDC reported Friday, up from less than 1% two months ago.
It’s time for flu season and shots
Hospitals across Florida tended to 2,579 COVID-positive patients Friday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported, the lowest number since June 4.
At the same time new subvariants descend, flu season is soon to get into high gear. The CDC has said it is safe to get the flu and COVID shots at the same time.
Florida health officials logged an average of 33,837 new cases weekly since Aug. 26, data from the state Health Department’s biweekly COVID report published Friday shows. And 12.4% of statewide test results from the past week came back positive for the disease, the lowest rate since May 6.
Florida’s death toll increased an average of 407 people weekly over the past two weeks, a dip from the state’s previous pandemic report, and the lowest level since the two weeks ending July 15.
Florida’s COVID vaccination count has surpassed 16 million shots, covering about 72% of eligible residents, a ratio that has barely budged in months.
But that inoculation count includes hundreds of thousands of tourists and other out-of-state residents who told vaccine providers they live in Florida. Neither Gov. Ron DeSantis nor state health officials plan to investigate this.
The state’s official death toll has hit 80,386 residents, health officials said Friday.
That excludes more than 3,000 victims whom state auditors found by combing through records from 2020 in which physicians classified someone’s cause of death as COVID, but the state Health Department did not.
Florida’s reported death toll also excludes visitors from out of state who contract the disease here. Health officials stopped publishing those numbers in June 2021.
Chris Persaud is The Palm Beach Post’s data reporter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.