COVID case counts unreliable as Florida hospitalizations skyrocket – Palm Beach Post

For the first time since COVID-19 hit Florida, case counts are showing the opposite of reality.
Health officials logged a decreasing number of COVID infections in the past week. But hospitalizations are soaring.
Florida logged about 2,000 fewer cases this week compared to the previous one, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Friday. Health officials documented more than 23,000 new COVID cases from Dec. 30 to Jan. 5, down from about 26,000 over the period from Dec. 22 to 29.
But more than 1,000 patients with COVID have filled hospital beds statewide since Christmas Day, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department said Friday. Medical staff tended to more than 2,800 COVID-positive patients statewide this week.
This trend of case counts and patient counts going in opposite ways is happening nationwide too, the federal data shows. That’s because fewer people are getting tested. And the latest versions of the coronavirus may be better at dodging detection.
About 117,000 Floridians got tested during the week ending Dec. 28, the lowest tally since the week ending Nov. 16, CDC data shows. That’s far below the weekly sums of more than 300,000 during the height of the wave of infections last summer.
The nationwide testing count during the week ending Dec. 28 was half what it was in late August. At-home COVID tests may no longer be effective at picking up infections early.
Dr. Larry Bush, an epidemiologist and former president of the Palm Beach County Medical Society, has seen this with patients. Some who felt symptoms tested negative for days before getting a positive result. One of his patients, he said, felt sick, but tested negative. Then her husband felt sick, tested negative for four days, but positive the fifth day.
Mutations of the coronavirus’ omicron variant have fueled waves of infections since summer. The at-home antigen tests — made for the original virus from China — had accurately detected COVID until recently. The latest batch of omicron subvariants spreading nationwide includes XBB 1.5. It comprises about 28% of new infections, doubling since Christmas, the CDC said Friday.
An XBB variant fueled a COVID surge in Singapore in late September that lasted about six weeks. Scientists have yet to gauge how well the rapid tests can detect XBB or other recent subvariants. But Bush doubts their ability.
“If you said to me, ‘Does the antigen test pick up the antigen as well now for these variants as it did before?’ my answer is ‘I don’t know.’“
Sewage tests across Florida and the nation also show no signs that the current surge of infections has let up.
The number of coronavirus particles found Jan. 2 in Palm Beach County wastewater — 267,000 copies per gram —has more than doubled in three weeks, according to WastewaterSCAN, a nationwide sewage testing initiative that includes Stanford University. Results reported by Boston-based laboratory Biobot also shows no end to the wave in Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Orange and Seminole counties across Florida.
Infections and hospitalizations have spread so much in some parts of Florida that the CDC recommends masking indoors to prevent the disease from straining hospitals. Those counties include Miami-Dade; Panhandle counties spanning from Escambia through Walton; and a cluster between the Gulf Coast and the Florida-Georgia line that includes Alachua County, home to Gainesville and the University of Florida.
Vaccination rates, meanwhile, continue to be more sluggish across Florida than most states.
About 26% of Floridians ages 65 and older — the age group with the vast majority of COVID deaths — have gotten the latest booster shots made for fighting omicron subvariants, CDC data shows. That’s worse than every state except Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.
Fewer than 10% of eligible Florida residents are up to date on their shots, compared to 15% of all Americans. COVID has killed at least 84,176 Florida residents, data released Friday by the Florida Department of Health shows.
That’s an average of 190 people each week since the Health Department’s last report Dec. 16. It’s lower than the weekly average weeks before then. But recent fatalities take weeks to enter official statistics.
The department, which has published biweekly since last March, skipped Dec. 30 because staff was off Dec. 23 and 26, and Jan. 2, spokesman Jae Williams said. Williams did not explain why staff was able to compile reports during the holidays in 2021, when the department published weekly.
COVID has infected more than 7.3 million Florida residents, about one-third of the state’s population.
Lindsey Leake of Treasure Coast News contributed to this report.
Chris Persaud is The Palm Beach Post’s data reporter. Email him at Click @ChrisMPersaud and follow him on Twitter.