We’re back with a COVID-19 update for Central Florida, as cases continue rising in Orange County and elsewhere around Walt Disney World as of August 4, 2021. For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been incorporating coronavirus numbers into news roundups; we are separating it out going forward so you can read or ignore as you so choose. These updates will continue on a weekly basis until there’s a sustained downward trend in new cases, positivity, hospitalization, deaths, etc.
As previously stated, we are sharing this since it’s news that may be relevant to out-of-staters planning or on the fence about a vacation to Walt Disney World. While Florida has been making the national news lately, those who don’t live here are likely are not “immersed” in the particulars of Central Florida news. By contrast, I watch all of the weekly hour-plus long Orange County press conferences, review data & reports, and read every interview with public health experts in the local news…and might as well put all of that to good use!
The goal with these updates is to distill all of that information, remove any hype or hyperbole, and present you with a straightforward report on current circumstances in Central Florida. We are well past the point where “color commentary” is of any persuasive value, which is why I am both refraining from offering my perspective and disabling comments in this (and all) posts pertaining to COVID. Suffice to say, do with this information what you will–here it is…
The CDC reported 17,001 new cases in Florida for August 2, 2021 (the most recent date for which there’s data). Over the last three days, Florida has reported 50,997 cases to the CDC. The state continues a surge not seen since January, during the post-holiday surge prior to the vaccination effort gaining momentum. Last Friday, Florida reported 21,683 new infections, the most cases in the state in a single day since the start of the pandemic.
Florida also broke its record for COVID-19 hospitalizations, with an all-time high of 11,515 patients in one day, according to data the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released Tuesday. As hospitalizations and deaths lag cases, this record is likely to be broken again several times over in the days and weeks to come.
Florida is home to approximately 6.5% of the U.S. population and currently accounts for about 21.5% of all new cases, per data Florida has reported to the CDC. The state’s numbers are currently the highest in the U.S., but come at a time when most southern states are experiencing a sharp spike.
Florida’s seven-day average of new cases stands at 17,628, an increase of approximately 800% as compared to the 7-day average of new cases one month ago. Florida’s seven-day positivity rate has climbed to 18.76%, according to the latest CDC data. At the beginning of July, positivity was 5.48%.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC that he expects surging U.S. coronavirus cases to start decreasing in 2-3 weeks, following a similar trajectory as the United Kingdom. “The U.K. clearly is on a downslope…I would expect some of the southern states that really were the epicenter of this epidemic to start rolling over in the next two or three weeks.”
Gottlieb also warned that northern states may start to see more delta spread as rates decrease in the south. This would mirror trends observed late last summer and fall in the United States. Different regions experienced spikes at different times, with gatherings driven indoors where the likelihood of transmission is exponentially higher, based upon weather.
The United Kingdom is referenced frequently here as it is similarly positioned and U.S. trends have consistently followed the UK’s lead. Cases peaked there on July 20 and have declined sharply since. That’s despite the UK government dropping most of its rules and restrictions on July 19, as shown on the above graph of new cases in the United Kingdom.
Despite the surge, the UK pressed forward with its “Freedom Day” under the belief that a significant wave of deaths or hospitalizations was low due to a high vaccination rate (over 70% of adults) that would limit the risk of serious illness. Thus far, that assessment has been vindicated as deaths have ‘decoupled’ from cases. Whereas the winter peak resulted in 80,000 daily cases and 1,300 daily deaths, the summer peak of 60,000 daily cases had no more than 78 deaths in one day. (Some readers have been incredulous about the UK’s post-reopening success. Here’s a good read about it today from NBC News.)
More locally, the Orange County’s Economic Recovery Task Force reconvened. If you followed Walt Disney World’s reopening saga last summer, you might recall this as the group that ultimately determined the fate of theme parks and other businesses in the county. It’s made up of executives and other leaders from around Central Florida, including Disney, Universal, and other theme parks.
Over a year after the group last met, they returned amidst steadily rising coronavirus cases, with the new goal of finding ways to increase vaccination rates, keep employees safe, commerce flowing, and not lose the momentum of Orlando’s economic recovery in the last several months. Mayor Demings indicated that the mission was to keep businesses open and thriving in “the safest manner possible.”
“Although nothing about the last year and a half has been easy, some of these decisions have been easier by us staying with our core value of safety first and wanting to ensure that our cast and guests stay as safe as possible. For us, it’s been very critical in explaining the ‘why’ behind these decisions,” she said. Bisienere further added that Disney’s best practices have involved a lot of communications, both internally and externally, along with employee education about vaccines.
Dr. Raul Pino from the Florida Department of Health in Orange County also spoke at the press conference, offering further insight into the ongoing climb in new cases. He indicated that 6 weeks ago, Orange County had a rate of 52 infections per 100,000 residents, its lowest number since testing began. This past week, the rate has been 511 infections per 100,000 people, its highest number since testing began.
In the latest report from the Florida Department of Health, Orange County and Osceola County each had positivity rates of over 15%. (Note that these numbers are from last week.) Dr. Pino indicated that Orange County’s current 14-day average positivity rate is 17.9% as of the beginning of this week.
Dr. Pino attributed this spike to Orange County reaching a new phase in the pandemic due to the increased infectiousness of the Delta variant, which has a shorter incubation period. The viral load that infected people shed is also 1,000 times greater than any prior variants. This has resulted in faster and easier spread, plus more breakthrough infections.
“Not to be alarmist, but in epidemiology, what we know is just the tip of the iceberg. We don’t see every single case, just those coming to be tested. So it’s safe to assume that there are also a number of cases we don’t know about because they haven’t been tested or don’t have symptoms,” said Dr. Pino.
Orange County’s wastewater surveillance corroborates this, showing a high level of COVID-19 viral components that can be predictive of community cases. Orange County Utilities is seeing a 924% increase of infections being detected through waste. AdventHealth representatives have likewise cited a scientific model when predicting elevated cases and hospitalizations for “at least another couple of weeks.”
“This variant is so aggressive that some of the national experts are saying that anyone who isn’t vaccinated will get it at some point…This is not to scare anyone, it’s to give you the truth so that you can make an informed decision,” said Dr. Pino.
Dr. Pino also shared that Orange County did a complete data analysis since vaccines began, and found that “more than 95% of all hospitalizations, and more than 95% of all deaths, and more than 95% of all new cases were among unvaccinated people.”
If you’re interested in hearing more from the source directly, I’ve embedded the Economic Recovery Task Force Meeting below–it starts when Dr. Pino speaks (he responds to a few questions later in the meeting). I’ve watched these press conferences almost every week for the last year, and have found Dr. Pino to be credible and a straight-shooter.
We’ll wrap this up on a more optimistic note, as there are silver linings even amid this current surge. Vaccinations have also spiked, with the United States finally hitting its goal (one month late!) of 70% of adults with at least one dose.
Moreover, the rate of newly-vaccinated people in the hardest-hit southern states has increased by an average of 171% each day over the past three weeks. Central Florida’s number is a more modest but still strong 31,000 people in Orange, Osceola, Seminole, and Lake Counties getting vaccinated last week. That’s an increase of over 50% from the prior week, which was also an increase week-over-week.
The renewed vaccination campaign coupled with significant levels of natural immunity from prior and ongoing waves 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” similar to that of the United Kingdom, which could make any future winter wave less devastating.