Just as many people thought the country had turned the corner in the fight against Covid-19, the number of new cases has skyrocketed as a result of the delta variant, a mutation of the virus first identified last December.
In an interview with the Miami Herald Thursday, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said that just three states – Florida, Texas, and Missouri – accounted for 40% of Covid-19 cases last week. Murthy said that the challenge in Florida and other states is that vaccination rates are not high enough, and in some pockets are still “quite low.”
To further assess the situation closer to home, the St. Pete Catalyst spoke with Dr. Ulyee Choe, Director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County. Choe is board certified in internal medicine and infectious diseases, and is currently an Associate Professor of Medicine with the Division of Infectious Disease and International Medicine at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine.
Choe also said that Florida has seen such a large increase due to the combination of the delta variant and stagnant vaccination rates.
“While we have 82% of Pinellas residents 65 years and older vaccinated, the younger age groups are much lower,” said Choe. “As a result, we are seeing the cases more in the younger age demographic.”
Choe said that last week’s positivity rate for Pinellas was 14.1%, which is lower than the state and Tampa Bay region averages, but that is also much higher than previous rates for the county. The New York Times Covid-19 data tracker reports that an average of 382 cases per day was reported in Pinellas County last week, a 368% increase from the average two weeks ago.
“What concerns me the most is the rapid increase in the cases over the last two weeks,” said Choe. “We are seeing the rate of increase at a higher level than any time throughout the pandemic. Unvaccinated individuals are particularly at risk from the infection.”
Choe said that it is clear from the trends that the delta variant is more contagious. Studies have shown that the variant replicates much faster, and patients had 1,000 times more copies of the virus in their respiratory tracks than those infected with the original strain.
While hospitalizations and deaths have not increased at the same rate as positive cases, Choe warned that could also change as the variant progresses through the area.
“While we have seen some increase in hospitalizations, the vaccine has protected a number of individuals who are at higher risk from severe outcomes,” he said. “However, if the burden of disease continues to increase in the community, we will also see more hospitalizations.”
While there are many reports of vaccinated people still getting the virus, Choe said that the risk remains much lower for that group. Most importantly, he said that the risk of severe outcomes – including hospitalizations and death – is significantly lower after being vaccinated.
Choe said that viruses continuously mutate, and most mutations are inconsequential. However, there is always the possibility that the right combination of mutations will occur, creating other clinically significant variants.
“Also, if the global pandemic continues to be prolonged and there are more viruses circulating, we may be at risk of seeing other variants,” he said.
Choe reiterated that vaccinations remain the best way to combat this strain and keep others from forming
“The most important thing you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones is to get vaccinated,” he said. “Unlike earlier in the year, vaccines are readily available to the public at no cost. Also, stay home if you are sick. The CDC continues to recommend masks for those unvaccinated and the immunocompromised, as they might not generate an appropriate immune response from the vaccine.”
In its update Monday morning, AdventHealth’s West Florida Division – which has locations in Hardee, Highlands, Hillsborough, Marion, Pasco, and Pinellas counties – announced it has seen an increase in Covid-19 hospitalizations over the weekend. However, there are still fewer patients compared to the peak in 2020. The delta variant is the most prominent strain they are seeing, and over 90% of patients are unvaccinated.