JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Florida passed another troubling milestone this week when it topped 9,000 coronavirus-related deaths of residents and staff members of long-term care facilities -- with the vast majority involving seniors in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
The state added another 156 COVID-19 related deaths statewide in data released Saturday by the Florida Department of Health. More than 25,500 Florida residents and visitors to the state have died from the virus, according to state data.
Overall, Florida has the fourth-largest number of COVID-19 deaths in the country, behind New York, California and Texas, according to a Johns Hopkins University website that tracks pandemic data.
Among the deaths reported Saturday in Florida were five in St. Johns County (151 total), four in Putnam (96) and three in Bradford (35). Duval County has reported the most deaths among the 11 counties News4Jax has been tracking in Florida with 863.
Florida reported an additional 12,311 cases Saturday, pushing the state’s total to 1,639,914 since the pandemic began last year.
Case numbers and deaths have escalated during the fall and winter.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has pinned his COVID-19 strategy on vaccinations, focusing on people age 65 or older who face particular health dangers from the virus. During an appearance Friday on Fox News, DeSantis touted giving at least first doses of vaccines to nearly 1 million seniors.
“We said seniors first. This is something we need something to focus on, the 65 and up population,” DeSantis said. “There’s young, healthy workers that are getting it in other states. God bless them, but I want to protect our vulnerable.”
But vaccine supplies remain limited, and seniors continue to make up most of the people dying from the virus.
As of the Friday count, 20,797 of the Florida resident deaths involved people age 65 or older. That represented 83% of the overall deaths -- a percentage that has remained relatively unchanged for months.
Long-term care deaths are also another indicator of the toll the pandemic continues to take on seniors.
With an additional 85 long-term care deaths reported Friday, the total reached 9,097 -- or about 36% of the state’s overall resident deaths. As another indicator, more than 100 long-term care deaths have been reported in 26 of the state’s 67 counties since the pandemic started.
There have been at least 70,000 resident hospitalizations attributed to the novel coronavirus in Florida since the start of the outbreak, and the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration on Saturday afternoon reporting 6,707 currently hospitalized with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19 -- down from 7,367 people at the beginning of the week.
At least 1,328,175 vaccines have been administered in Florida, with 151,447 people in the state getting both shots that are needed, but some vaccination sites have had to close as they have used up their allotment and there is continuing frustration by people who qualify who have not been able to get an appointment for a shot.
But officials try to ramp up vaccinations against the coronavirus, concern spreads over a new, more contagious variant that could be gaining a foothold in the state.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Florida had 46 confirmed cases of the more transmissible strain of COVID-19 as of Sunday, eclipsing California with 40 confirmed cases at last count. The strain was first detected in the United Kingdom in December and has begun spreading globally.
Early evidence seems to indicate the new strain is no more lethal than earlier strains that sickened nearly 24.2 million in the U.S. and killed more than 400,000. Florida is now approaching 1.6 million confirmed cases, with nearly 10,000 new cases and about 160 additional deaths reported Tuesday. To date, the state has reported more than 24,400 virus-related deaths.
“This new strain is more contagious, and that means more people will get infected,’' said Dr. Frederick Southwick, a professor of medicine and a specialist in infectious diseases at the University of Florida. “If we had a problem, we’re going to have more of a problem now.’'
Communities across the country are racing against the rise in infections as they await more doses of two vaccines approved for use against the virus.
“The game plan is what it has been before: Vaccinate as many people as possible, as rapidly as possible, try to really stomp on this virus and drop the overall number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths,” said Dr. Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida.
The Associated Press and News Service of Florida contributed to this report.