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COVID spreading faster in Florida but isn't as strong, UCF epidemiologist notes

Florida hospitals are seeing rising numbers of admissions, but death rates remain low by comparison. Here's what experts say that means.

Florida’s weekly average of COVID-19 hospitalizations doubled between November and January, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CDC data show Florida hospitalization numbers rose to a weekly average of 2,200 admissions by the first week of January.

Elena Cyrus, a epidemiologist at the University of Central Florida, said the rising rate of hospitalizations accompanied by lower death counts compared to last year means the current variant of the virus spreads faster but it isn’t as strong.

“So there's a greater number of cases, which then allows there to be a greater number of hospitalizations. But the virus is not severe enough that it causes as many deaths, as we saw at the beginning of the epidemic, or as many ICU admissions as we saw before the epidemic. So the virus itself is less virulent or less strong,” she said.

Weekly deaths in Florida are half of what they were this time two years ago, CDC data show. From Dec. 22-28, the CDC recorded 309 Florida deaths. During the same period in 2020, Florida reported 664 deaths.

Additionally, the rising hospitalization rate tells experts the virus is better at evading the vaccine, which will always be “somewhat” of a step behind the mutating virus.

"The vaccines will sort of always be slightly behind the current variation of the virus. So for every vaccine, for every virus of COVID-19, we'll never have anything like 100% coverage," Cyrus said.

COVID-winter season the new normal?

COVID joined a rise in other respiratory illnesses this winter along with RSV and the flu.

Does that mean a COVID season has become the new normal?

Cyrus said that may very well be the case, but the virus won’t be under control until hospitalizations, intensive care unit admissions and deaths begin averaging at less severe levels.

Another factor keeping the idea of "COVID increases" away from being considered a normal seasonal occurrence is the decreased amount of treatment options compared to last year.

"We thought by this time this year, and in future years, our treatment options would actually increase to mitigate some of those hospitalizations. And in fact, what happened was the reverse. We actually lost some of the treatment options," Cyrus said.

Monoclonal antibodies aren't responsive to some of the variants that exist, and Paxlovid has negative interactions with some patients with compromised immune systems.

"So, it is a new normal, but we still want to manage it better, right? We would like to see this as a new normal but at a less severe level," Cyrus said. "So that's where it should be ideally in terms of a broad epidemiological perspective is that we anticipate a great number of cases, but that the hospitalizations would be low, the deaths would also be low, and the ICU admissions would also be low."

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