Florida Breaks COVID Records, Over 150,000 Cases Last Week

We’re back with the weekly COVID-19 report with data from Orange County, Florida and elsewhere around Walt Disney World as of August 16, 2021. This provides an update on new cases, positivity, hospitalization, etc., plus public health expert commentary and wastewater surveillance insight.

As always, this is shared since it’s news that may be relevant to out-of-staters planning or on the fence about a vacation to Walt Disney World. The goal with these updates distilling data and information from multiple sources, free of hyperbole, sensationalism, and commentary–just a straightforward report on current circumstances in Central Florida.

Before getting started, a quick housekeeping note. Last Monday night, the Florida Department of Health disputed the CDC’s daily numbers, stating that the CDC had erroneously combined multiple days of data into one. CDC subsequently corrected this mistake, but the daily numbers were still record highs. A couple of readers asked why we did not issue a correction to our last COVID report, and it’s simple–we published before that data was released, and thus did not include either the mistaken or the corrected numbers.

At the end of the week, the Florida Department of Health released its own weekly ‘situation report’ with a record-breaking number of cases through Thursday, with over 150,000 new cases. That number was up from 134,711 cases the week before and came before another record-breaking day of cases on Friday.

The CDC reported 25,991 new cases in Florida for August 13, 2021 (the most recent date for which there’s data). This was another new daily record, which has occurred several times within the last two weeks. Florida’s seven-day average of new cases stands at 21,662 (also a record) while the United States as a whole has a moving average of 119,523 new cases per day. The CDC data and Florida Department of Health numbers are consistent with one another for last week.

On a positive note, Florida is seeing its COVID-19 hospitalizations plateau, with 15,630 COVID patients as of Sunday according to the Florida Hospital Association. This is still higher than last week, but could be an early sign that Florida’s numbers have peaked and will soon begin their decline.

Per numbers from the Department of Health and Human Services, coronavirus patients accounted for 27% of Florida’s inpatient beds and 47% of ICU beds. AdventHealth and Orlando Health have not provided local updates for a couple of weeks now, but in searching the HHS site, it appears that around 5% to 20% of beds are available at various hospitals within a 30 mile radius of Walt Disney World. Wide range, but that’s the best local insight I can offer.

Today, Orange County held its latest health press conference, which you can watch for yourself above (it’s not particularly illuminating). To begin on a positive note, vaccine demand continues to increase to levels not seen since before the start of summer. In fact, Orlando’s Camping World Stadium vaccination site closed early over the weekend due to high demand. In total, 65.27% of Orange County adults are now at least partially vaccinated.

Dr. Raul Pino from the Florida Department of Health in Orange County spoke at the press conference. He shared new data for Orange County, albeit not as much as normal. The 14-day average test positivity rate has “leveled off” at 20% and there were 1,020 new cases yesterday. Thus far in August, there have been 28 deaths in Orange County due to COVID.

This press conference was held at the Eastern Water Reclamation Facility to give media a tour and see wastewater samples, making me “jealous” that I’m not a real journalist and only watch these briefings on YouTube. The purpose was to highlight Orange County Utilities’ participation in the CDC National Wastewater Surveillance System, which provides an advance warning of infections through analysis of RNA concentrations in water reclamation facilities across the United States.

The county measures fragments of non-contagious virus, and this provides a predictive tool for what’s to come. Similar wastewater surveillance programs have been used around the world to monitor both symptomatic and asymptomatic cases, as well as trends and outbreaks.

Ed Torres, director of Orange County Utilities, spoke at the press conference and shared some statistics on virus concentrations in the wastewater. This was a pretty big ‘stat dump’ that was difficult to follow since it was broken down by facilities and service areas. In general, Orange County Utility facilities went from around 200,000 gene copies of the virus per liter in May when the program started to 2,000,000 in early August. Obviously, a huge increase across the board.

Torres indicated that Orange County’s concentration levels at the end of July exceeded the highest peak concentration levels that had been recorded at the beginning of the pandemic. He explained that this means Orange County will continue to see elevated case and hospitalization numbers for the coming week.

Torres also stated that back in May and June, the Delta variant represented around 20% of all virus samples Orange County Utilities was finding in the wastewater. Now, the Delta variant accounts for nearly 100% of all virus samples.

With that said, Orange County Utilities issued a press release early last week with numbers as of August 5 as compared to mid-May. One week later, and only the South Water Reclamation Facility has seen a slight increase. By contrast, the other two facilities have dropped, with the Northwest Water Reclamation Facility in particular going from concentration levels of 2,090,649 on August 2 to approximately 1,000,000 on August 15.

While that number is still up dramatically since May and even July, it’s a sharp drop in one week, and hopefully a similar trend will emerge county-wide. As wastewater concentrations are predictive, this is cause for at least mild optimism.

Following those wastewater statistics during the question and answer portion of the briefing, Dr. Pino added: “There’s a segment of the community that refuses to get vaccinated and take precautionary measures, but the reality is, anyone who is not vaccinated, at the levels of infection that [Orange County] is having should expect to get this infection. You may experience it asymptomatically, but the levels we’re having right now…I don’t think many people could escape this infection if not vaccinated.”

This is sentiment Dr. Pino shared a couple of weeks ago, which is corroborated by other public health experts and current levels of prevalence in Orange County. No update was provided this week on vaccinated versus unvaccinated cases or hospitalizations, but in prior weeks, both of which are overwhelmingly among the unvaccinated–typically above 95%.

Finally, former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC he expects the coronavirus to become an endemic virus in the United States once the current surge in Delta variant infections subsides. An endemic virus is one that remains in the American population at a relatively low frequency, like the seasonal flu, for example.

“After we get through this Delta wave, this is going to become more of an endemic illness where you just see sort of a persistent infection through the winter…but not at the levels that we’re experiencing certainly right now, and it’s not necessarily dependent upon the booster shots,” Gottlieb added.

“You’re going to see the delta wave course through probably between late September through October,” Gottlieb said. “Hopefully we’ll be on the other side of it or coming on the other side of it sometime in November, and we won’t see a big surge of infection after this on the other side of this delta wave.”

“This is a big country and the delta wave is going to sweep across the country in a regionalized fashion,” he said. “By September, you’ll see the other side of that curve in the South very clearly, but cases will be picking up in the Northeast, the Great Lakes region, maybe the Pacific Northwest.”

We’ll end on the same note of optimism as last week. Orange County’s ongoing vaccination campaign coupled with significant levels of natural immunity from the ongoing wave of infections mean that going forward, either by inoculation or illness, a high percentage of Floridians will have antibodies as well as strong B and T cell immune memory. This should form a “wall of immunity” that makes future spikes less severe.

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