Florida COVID Cases Down 70% Since August

It’s time for another installment of the weekly COVID-19 report with data from Florida and around Walt Disney World as of September 15, 2021. This provides an update on new cases, positivity, hospitalizations, plus commentary from Orange County’s weekly health briefing.

We’ll start with the latest report from the Florida Department of Health (data from last week), which shows the lowest number of new cases since mid-July. This is another marked decrease in new cases, with 100,012. That number was 129,240 the week prior, and over 150,000 for the prior 3 weeks through August 20.

Additionally and more notably, rolling positivity rate is down to 13.5%, as compared to 15.4% the week before that and 17.2% the prior week. It had been in the 20% range for several weeks from mid-July through mid-August. This is the lowest Florida’s rolling positivity rate has been since just after Independence Day.

This report shows new cases dropping in the last the week among every age range, which includes a second-straight week of dropping numbers (this time more pronounced) among school age kids. The highest case numbers are once again occurring in age ranges between 20 and 39 years old.

Over 80% of residents above the age of 60 are vaccinated and 75% of those ages 50-59. Weekly numbers now reflect a slowdown in the rate of vaccination among younger age cohorts. The lowest vaccination rate is among people ages 20-29 at 50%.

Next, more current numbers from the CDC, which reported 11,300 new cases in Florida for September 13, 2021 (the most recent date for which there’s data). Florida’s 7-day average of new cases currently stands at 12,660–down from 14,297 last week.

Last Friday, Florida’s daily new cases dropped below 10,000 for the first time since July. On Sunday, that number hit 6,995–the lowest single day since July 12. Florida’s numbers are now 73% lower in the last 30 days, with the bulk of that drop occurring since the start of September.

Additionally, the Florida Hospital Association continues to report a decline in new hospitalizations. The total number of hospitalizations as of yesterday is 10,727.

This number is down 17.7% week-over-week, when it had already started to decrease ahead of new cases. Only two weeks ago, that number was above 15,000.

Per numbers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, coronavirus patients accounted for 19.25% of Florida’s inpatient beds and 30% of ICU beds. This latter number is a sharp drop from last week, when COVID patients accounted for 46% of ICU beds.

Despite this sharp drop in coronavirus patients, 84.11% of hospital beds in Florida are still in use. This is likely a mix of standard procedures resuming and the reality that hospitals normally operate at relatively high capacity even under normal circumstances (although that number has dropped in recent decades per CDC data).

Closer to Walt Disney World, AdventHealth Central Florida will move from yellow to green status on Thursday–having moved from black to red status two weeks ago, and from red to yellow last week. This means that the hospital system resumes normal operations, according to Dr. Neil Finkler, Chief Clinical Officer of AdventHealth’s Central Florida Division, interviewed by the Orlando Sentinel.

AdventHealth was last in the green status back on July 21, just before the current wave really accelerated. AdventHealth reports 890 patients currently–down from 1,100 patients last week, which is a decrease of approximately 800 from its record on August 23, 2021. Approximately 92% of AdventHealth’s COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated.

Circumstances are similar at Orlando Health, which has 426 COVID-19 patients as of today, with 86 in the intensive care unit. That’s down from 600 last week and 900 in late August when it had nearly 900 COVID-19 patients. As with AdventHealth, over 90% of the hospitalized patients at Orlando Health are unvaccinated.

As of today, Florida now ranks 22nd among states in the U.S. for average daily COVID cases per 100,000 people per data from the New York Times. Florida accounted for nearly 25% of all cases in the nation during the peak in August, so this is a particularly sharp drop.

This also comes as states in the Midwest, Great Plains, and elsewhere are now seeing their own seasonal spikes as Florida is falling, causing it to further move up the comparative rankings. (Florida was still in the top 10 just last week.) All of these numbers are certainly cause for optimism, and there’s reason to believe the current trends will continue.

It’s not all upbeat news. Florida is still seeing elevated daily death tolls, exceeding the previous highs from January. This is unsurprising, as an increase in deaths typically lags a spike in new cases by several weeks. This has happened consistently everywhere throughout the pandemic, albeit with lower death rates as treatment options have improved.

As a reminder, Florida changed its reporting methodology and deaths are now retroactively added to the date on which they occurred–not the day they are reported–and can take up to two weeks to be reflected in the CDC data. Consequently, the current 7-day average is low and doesn’t yet reflect where deaths will be once reported. (Florida’s current “backfilled” deaths for late August are approximately 300 per day.)

Several people have responded to our Florida COVID reports on social media with the claim that Florida is underreporting its “true numbers” to make the situation look better. It’s possible this has been fueled by viral (and inaccurate) Facebook posts.

This has been a recurrent subject during the last year, but past allegations of Florida undercounting have been debunked with data analysis (here’s a good example from earlier this year in the Washington Post). If you’re still skeptical after reading that, ask whether the unsupported allegations pass the smell test. If Florida were “cooking its books” on the numbers, why do those supposedly fraudulent numbers still reflect the worst spike in the United States this summer?

If there’s a valid point to be made, it’s that Florida’s methodology change lacks transparency and was done to obfuscate. Nevertheless, Florida’s approach is an accepted practice used by other states. It’s also one that counts all deaths–the critique is one of timing, not whether the numbers are accurate.

There’s plenty to criticize with Florida’s handling of the pandemic, and we aren’t suggesting otherwise. (I’ll refrain from offering my opinions on what the state has done well and poorly because the goal here is objective reporting.) However, uncritically buying into unsupported claims simply because they comport with underlying biases or reinforce policy disagreements is never pragmatic.

Moving along, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings and other local leaders held their latest press conference, which you can view for yourself above.

Dr. Raul Pino from the Florida Department of Health in Orange County spoke at the press conference, indicating that the 7-day positivity average for Orange County is now down to 13.3% (from 14.32% in our last report, 16.1% in the one before that, and ~20% for the several weeks prior).

While the declining positivity rate is good to see, it’s worth noting that the CDC’s criteria for moving down to the moderate level where face masks are no longer recommended indoors is under 50 total new cases per 100,000 persons in the past 7 days and under 8% test positivity during the past 7 days. (No update was provided on Orange County’s cases per 100k persons this week, but Florida as a whole is at 51 per the NYT data above.)

Orange County’s numbers are heading in the right direction, but not in absolute terms. Daily cases and positivity numbers are still very high as compared to earlier this summer when the rules were lifted and even during past waves. It’s probably going to be until at least October before another change to Walt Disney World’s face mask rules. It’s also possible Walt Disney World won’t lift the current mask rules until after the holiday season, waiting to see a sustained downturn throughout the United States.

Once again, we’ll conclude with commentary from Dr. Scott Gottlieb on CBS Face the Nation Sunday. The first half of the interview is largely about the federal vaccine mandate, plus its potential ramifications and whether it’s counterproductive. All of that is well beyond the scope of this post, but is nevertheless fascinating and potentially worth watching.

The second half focuses on the approval timeline for the pediatric vaccine. In addition to being the former FDA commissioner, Gottlieb serves on the board of Pfizer and is thus knowledgeable about the likely timeline for the company’s submission of data and the FDA’s approval process for the vaccine in kids under age 11.

Pfizer should file its data with the Food and Drug Administration before the end of September 2021. The FDA has said it’s going to be a matter of weeks, not months, in terms of their evaluation of that clinical data to make a determination whether they’re going to authorize vaccines for kids ages 5 to 11. Per Gottlieb, a best-case scenario is having a vaccine available to children 5 to 11 years old by Halloween if everything goes well.

Finally, Gottlieb also had a piece in the Atlantic over the weekend: “How Endemic COVID Becomes a Manageable Risk.” In recent weeks, we’ve shared articles about the need for Americans to recalibrate their expectations, as preventing all infections or eliminating the coronavirus is not a realistic long-term goal. This article is essentially the next logical step in that conversation–how this is accomplished via mitigation and behavioral changes, plus improved airflow, filtration, and ventilation. (This blog has strongly advocated for these things in the past year-plus, and we’re very curious whether there will be sustained interest in the ‘Healthy Buildings‘ movement. We certainly hope so!)

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