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How Deadly Is Florida's Delta Surge? A USF Health Expert Breaks It Down

U.S. Navy
COVID-19 hospitalizations are declining after reaching record highs this summer, but deaths remain high.

Florida experienced about as many COVID-19 deaths during the month of August as it did in the 165 days — nearly six months — leading up to it, according to epidemiologist Jason Salemi.

Florida's COVID-19 death toll continues to climb well above 50,000 in what has been the worst wave of the pandemic in the state.

Health News Florida's Stephanie Colombini talked with Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist with the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health, to get a better understanding of just how deadly the delta surge has been.

Salemi operates a coronavirus dashboard that visualizes data from the state and federal governments and focuses on Florida with national comparisons.

He shared some harrowing statistics:

  • Deaths to-date: 51,892
  • In August, 8,919 people died according to the latest data, or 288 per day. It took 165 days, nearly six months, for that number of deaths (greater than 8,900) to accumulate prior to August.
  • Peak sevenday average so far in delta surge: 344 deaths per day. Peak during summer 2020 surge: 228 deaths per day.
  • Seniors 65 and older account for 77% of COVID-19 deaths. But in just the past seven weeks, the cumulative number of deaths has doubled for every age group younger than 40. Other adults saw significant increases as well.

More from the conversation:

How does our peak this time around compare to the previous high?

Because of reporting anomalies, we like to use seven-day trends when we talk about deaths. Florida’s high in the summer surge of 2020 was 228 deaths per day, over a seven-day window. Our high now during the delta surge is 344 deaths per day, and that actually occurred as of Aug. 24.

So that's an additional 116 people dying every day at our peak in the delta surge, compared to a pre-vaccine peak in the summer of 2020.

We had over 8,900 people who actually died in the month of August over a 31-day window. It took 165 days, nearly six months, for that number of deaths to occur between February 17 and July 31.

Wow, nearly 9,000 deaths in just one month. Seniors still make up a majority of Florida's overall COVID deaths, but we have seen a lot more younger people die during this surge. What's going on?

The vaccines have actually been doing an incredible job in shifting the age distribution of both hospitalizations and deaths to younger people. You might ask, why is it shifting the age distribution? Well, the most heavily vaccinated subgroup in our population are seniors. So proportionately they are realizing the advantages of vaccination more so than younger age groups.

We've had over 80 weeks of the pandemic. In just the past seven weeks, the cumulative number of deaths has doubled for every age group younger than 40.

Another way of thinking about this is it took us nearly one year to learn of as many new COVID-19 deaths in people younger than 60 as we've learned about in the past seven weeks, nearly a year. So it has really impacted younger people because of how much transmission has occurred during the delta surge.

We've talked about a lot of numbers here, but obviously these are people. What are your thoughts on this tremendous loss of life?

That really does break my heart. I mean, I am a realist, we ultimately will need to get to a point in this pandemic where we learn to live with COVID-19. It is not realistic for us to just live in a bubble in our homes. But when you think that we've got these amazing ... I mean far exceeding most scientists expectations on what these vaccines could do to reduce your risk of severe illness and death.

And so I view a lot of these deaths, I mean, my God, over 340 each day over a seven-day window at our peak – that's a lot of people dying. And I think the overwhelming majority of those were absolutely preventable through either full vaccination, or combined with simple, relatively simple mitigation strategies. And so that's what's been the tough pill to swallow.

Now, don't get me wrong, the delta variant threw a lot at us, you know, being so much more transmissible. But still, most of these deaths could have been prevented.

So I'm just thankful at this point that the numbers continue to come down. But I think we've got a lot of work left to be done.

We've almost been desensitized to numbers as high as they've gotten. Since the numbers are kind of falling off the cliff, we forget that we're still admitting nearly 1,000 adults in hospitals every single day with COVID-19. We're still experiencing, you know, 10,000 cases every single day. And so it's still on us to do things that we know work to continue to bring down community transmission.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

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.