Florida once again led the nation this week in the number of soaring cases of COVID-19 as the dangerous delta variant sweeps through the country.
Hospitalizations in some areas increased at the fastest rate since the start of the pandemic, according to data analyzed by the Wall Street Journal.
Florida was still racking up one of every five cases in the country — just as it did the previous week when the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned of the rising “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
The astonishing uptick in Florida cases — from some 46,000 to 73,000 this past week to Thursday — was linked to the state’s lackluster vaccination rate, dropped health protocols requiring masks and social distancing, and more people moving indoors to escape the summer heat, according to epidemiologists.
“All of those things together are a recipe for the data that we’re seeing,” Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida, told the Journal. “It’s a cause for concern ... the speed with which the indicators are going up.”
The state’s governor, Republican Ron DeSantis, also consistently resists safety measures and downplays the threat of the disease. Florida is among a handful of states cutting back on how often it reports cases. The state has joined Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota in only reporting cases weekly, rather than daily, as most other states do. Some states are expanding reporting, such as specifying the number of cases for the vaccinated vs. unvaccinated. Hospitalizations in Florida hit 3,849 on July 17, the highest since late February, according to the Journal.
The age of those hospitalized in Florida is also ticking downward: 53% are under age 60, compared with 30% at the start of the year, the Journal reported.
Experts continue to emphasize that vaccinations are the most effective weapon against COVID-19. A British study published Wednesday found that the Pfizer vaccine was 88% effective against symptomatic cases of the delta variant.
But troubling figures from Israel’s Health Ministry concluded Thursday that the Pfizer vaccine was only 39% effective in warding off all COVID-19 infections (40% against symptomatic cases) between June 20 and July 17. That compares to a 95% rate from January to April. Pfizer, however, remained 91% effective in both time frames in preventing severe cases.
The study reportedly involved a relatively small sample of cases. Yet the range of figures is raising some fears that vaccines’ efficacy may be fading over time — or that the delta variant is presenting a powerful challenge to vaccinations. The increasing number of cases is also raising discussions about the need for a booster.
“We have to be mindful that, with time, the effectiveness of these vaccines may wane,” Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease professor at the University of Toronto, told CNBC.
“We have to be prepared ... that people may need a booster at some point,” he added. “This close surveillance that’s happening in countries like Israel, the U.K. and other parts of the world is going to be very helpful in driving policy if and when we do need boosters.”
White House chief medical officer Dr. Anthony Fauci has already encouraged fully vaccinated people to consider wearing masks indoors as a precaution against the delta variant.
Those refusing to be vaccinated — as well as the politicians and news media who encourage them to continue to resist vaccinations — are increasingly coming under attack as they continue to contract, and spread, mutating, stronger variants of COVID-19 that could eventually overwhelm a vaccine and threaten everyone.
“The longer we go with large numbers of people unvaccinated, the greater and greater the risk that a new variant will develop that will evade vaccine-induced immunity,” warned Mayo Clinic Dr. Gregory Poland, one of the nation’s top vaccine experts. “We are our own worst enemies here.”
World Health Organization officials have also warned that the longer people remain unvaccinated as social mixing continues, the higher the risk of an even more dangerous variant.
There were 360,000 new cases of COVID-19 nationwide last week, a 65% increase over the previous week, and nearly triple the number the week before that, CNBC reported. Cases are up in all 50 states.