Over 10,000 cases of COVID-19 “variants of concern” have been reported in Florida, state health officials disclosed Monday, more than double the total just two weeks earlier and an indication that the spread is accelerating.
Through May 1, nearly 500 of those cases have been reported in Orange County, nearly 200 in Osceola, 188 in Seminole and 130 in Lake. By far, the most common variant was the B.1.1.7 — the strain first detected in the United Kingdom — reported in 9,050 cases statewide. Estimated to be 60% more infectious than the original strain of COVID-19, it is also believed to result in more severe illness and higher hospitalization rates. The most recent estimate is that it is 67% more deadly.
In Florida, the variants have led to the death of 62 people — twice the number reported two weeks ago — and to the hospitalization of 222 residents.
The latest variant data came Monday as Gov. Ron DeSantis announced he was immediately suspending all local COVID-19 restrictions, prompting a warning that cities and counties won’t be able to respond to outbreaks of more contagious or lethal strains of COVID-19 in their own communities.
“The real problem is that everyone’s acting like the pandemic is over,” said Dr. Aileen Marty, a professor of infectious disease and outbreak response at Florida International University. “If we get lackadaisical about it ... these variants can overcome some of the immunity that we’ve developed, and we may find ourselves in a very bad situation again.”
Marty has previously worked for the World Health Organization, most recently in the fight against the Ebola epidemic in Nigeria. Her goal in the battle against COVID-19, she said, was not to scare residents but to encourage them to behave responsibly.
“I think that to the majority of the people, there are just too many numbers and letters [for the variants] to keep up with and to understand where the risk actually is right now,” she said. “The most important thing to know is that we need to get more people vaccinated. Any level of protection is better than no level of protection.”
Viruses are known to mutate constantly in an effort to perpetuate their own survival by infecting more hosts. While some of those mutations do not affect the contagiousness or severity of the disease, others — including those deemed “variants of concern” by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — in some way pose a greater threat than the original. One strain, identified as B.1.351 and first found in South Africa, is less impacted by current treatments and vaccines, for instance.
There have been 52 cases of B.1.351 reported so far in Florida. Other strains include those first found in Brazil and California. So far, the variant responsible for the latest devastating surge in India — B.1.617 — has not been detected in Florida. The United States will begin restricting travel from India this week.
The Florida Department of Health data on the variants was released as part of a legal settlement with the Orlando Sentinel. The paper sued in mid-March to obtain county-by-county data after numerous requests for the information over the preceding two months. The suit claimed the data is vital to the “strong, immediate need ... to understand how the virus continues to spread and affect Floridians.” A judge agreed.
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