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News about coronavirus in Florida and around the world is constantly emerging. It's hard to stay on top of it all but Health News Florida can help. Our responsibility is to keep you informed, and to help discern what’s important for your family as you make what could be life-saving decisions.

Expert Urges Unvaccinated Floridians To Get COVID Shots, Wear Masks

Elijah Brooks, 15, went to Robinson High School with his mother Sharea to get his COVID-19 vaccine. She said she wouldn't have known where to get him a shot had the school not offered it.
Elijah Brooks, 15, went to Robinson High School with his mother Sharea to get his COVID-19 vaccine. She said she wouldn't have known where to get him a shot had the school not offered it.

Epidemiologist Jason Salemi says the large number of unvaccinated Floridians are at higher risk for serious infection as more transmissible strains of the virus spread rapidly in the community.

New coronavirus cases are surging in Florida again along with most of the United States. The state added 45,604 this past week, about twice as many as last week with a daily average of 6,514. The positivity rate for new cases was 11.5%, nearly four times as high as rates from last month.

Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist with the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health, talked with Health News Florida's Stephanie Colombini about the surge and how people can protect themselves.

Why are we seeing this significant spike in cases?

A lot of why this is happening is multifactorial. The big thing right now that a lot of people are talking about, rightfully so, is the delta variant. In some regions of the United States like the Midwest it’s predicted that the delta variant makes up almost nine in 10 of all new cases recently.

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Because of this much higher transmissibility, the big pockets of unvaccinated people and a general relaxation of other preventive measures, I expect the delta variant to keep increasing in prevalence and continue to cause serious illness unless we start doing something to impact that.

The good news and the sad news out of all of this is the vaccinations. If you look at all COVID-19 deaths in May and June more than 99% of those deaths were among people who were not fully vaccinated. So it appears as though we have a tool to prevent almost all of our serious illnesses that results in hospitalization and death. But the sad part is, as you look across the country, there are just massive numbers of people, even of those who are just of vaccine-eligible age, who have yet to be fully vaccinated.

In Florida, that number is 8.5 million people, nearly 1 million of those are seniors who are still not fully vaccinated. And so because of this variant, its ability to transmit, we've seen how it's ravaged countries like India, there's a lot of things we can do to help. But the number one thing is certainly to increase the number of people who are protected through full vaccination.

We’ve kind of seen the community as a whole back off restrictions and preventative measures, do we need to rethink that?

Yeah, I would agree with you. And, you know, especially if you're not vaccinated, thinking about other preventive measures that you can take, and they're the tried and true things we've been preaching: especially if you're in an indoor setting, wear a facial covering. Try to socially distance, try and do as many things outdoors as you can, etc.

What would you say to people who are like, “I'm vaccinated, this isn't my problem?”

Well, first of all, I completely understand that mentality. You've heard that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear facial coverings and socially distance anymore to protect themselves. We constantly are modifying our recommendations, but we're trying to do that in a data-driven fashion. Like right now we are seeing the numbers starting to go up and we’ve seen what (the delta variant) is doing in other parts of the world, and so we’re trying to prevent that from happening here.

So somebody like me, I am fully vaccinated right now. I have a peace of mind that when I go out in public, even if I were to get infected with the virus, my likelihood of being seriously ill is exceedingly small. But if you see me in indoor settings out in the public, I am wearing a facial covering, I am trying to socially distance from people. Because when we have 8 million people who are of vaccine eligible age who are unvaccinated, I don't know how many of those are around me in public. And I know that I can still get the virus and pass it to them. And their likelihood of getting severely ill is certainly much higher than mine.

So that's why this is less about us telling fully vaccinated people, “You're in danger, you need to wear a mask.” That's not what we're saying. What we're saying is to try and protect your family member, your community member, to try and just help out in terms of curbing the spread of the virus, to continue to implement some of these preventive measures.

As an epidemiologist, what are you kind of keeping an eye on the next few weeks?

Yeah, it's a great question. I think first, we have this increasingly prevalent delta variant that is already causing so many hospitalizations and damage throughout the world. I want to continue to monitor how the prevalence is changing over time. My guess is it's going to continue to become increasingly prevalent, but where it's doing so, that's something that I will continue to monitor.

I'm thinking about the vaccination numbers, and what things can we do to increase vaccination rates, where really we've been slowing down since mid-April in terms of the number of doses we’re giving each week. Just looking at the volume of people who aren’t fully vaccinated, again 8.5 million people who are of vaccine-eligible age who are not fully vaccinated and of course you’ve got about 2.8 million children who are 11 years of age or younger who cannot be protected through vaccination, so I’m thinking about how many people this virus can continue to do damage in, and hopefully those numbers come down.

Last but not least, there has just been a pronounced decrease in other precautionary measures that were effective in the past in helping to reduce community spread of the virus. To me this is even more concerning as the hot temperatures in Florida are driving people into indoor settings where this already more transmissible variant transmits more easily. So all of these things combined, if unchanged, I think they continue to make us ripe for a worsening of the numbers, particularly in these communities with low vaccination coverage.

What breaks my heart now is I know that almost all of the new hospitalizations, almost all of the COVID-19 deaths, are preventable at this state. But I still continue to understand people's concerns. I think we need to listen to their questions and their concerns about getting vaccinated, answer those questions, make it easily accessible for them, and just continue to hope that more and more people look at the numbers, the trajectory that we're heading on and figure, “If I was on the fence, this is a really good time to not be on the fence and to go and get myself vaccinated.”

Copyright 2021 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.