JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – New COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Florida and around Jacksonville have spiked to levels not seen in months. The White House said the state is playing an outsized role in driving up concerning national numbers.
The number of weekly diagnoses of the virus has risen for four weeks in a row and is now at levels last seen as the state was coming out of a winter surge.
Over the past week, 45,603 new COVID-19 cases were identified in Florida, an average of 6,515 new cases per day, according to the weekly data released by the Department of Health on Friday afternoon. The state’s rate of positive tests rose to 11.5% from 7.8% the week before.
And while Florida’s story is concerning, COVID-19 cases in Duval and neighboring counties are growing even faster. Duval saw 4,428 new cases in the last seven days -- a 21.9% positivity rate. Baker, Bradford, Nassau, Putnam and Union counties’ positivity rates are even higher. Baker and Nassau counties had the highest number of new infections per capita of any county in Florida. (See complete county-by-county numbers below.)
COVID-19 cases each week since the pandemic reached Florida in March 2020
And while rates are spiking nationwide -- up about 70% over the last week -- Florida’s rise is among the worst.
“Just four states accounted for more than 40% of all cases in the past week, with 1 in 5 of all cases occurring in Florida alone,” White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients told reporters during a briefing Friday.
The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. is becoming “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.’'
Speaking during a White House briefing, Dr. Rochelle Walensky says cases in the U.S. are hospital admissions are up 36% and deaths rose by 26%. Nearly all hospital admissions and deaths, she says, are among the unvaccinated.
About 3,200 COVID patients are hospitalized in Florida, a jump of 73% since June 14. The number had been falling since mid-January when nearly 7,800 were hospitalized just as the vaccination program began.
Meanwhile, the number of vaccinations administered weekly has fallen by almost 80% statewide since April even though less than 60% of the population 12 and older is fully vaccinated.
Florida now has the fourth-highest per-capita hospitalization rate in the U.S., behind Nevada, Missouri and Arkansas, according to Jason Salemi, a University of South Florida epidemiologist tracking the national outbreak for more than a year.
While hospitalizations trail the start of an outbreak by about two weeks, they are considered a more accurate barometer of the disease’s status than the number of reported cases, which can vary by the availability of testing and other factors. Still, the number of reported cases in Florida nearly doubled last week, from 23,000 to 45,000.
Dr. Shamarial Roberson, the state’s deputy health secretary, said Friday the case increase is mostly among younger people who are less likely to be severely affected. She said more than 80% of residents 65 and over are vaccinated.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis reiterated that even with the increasing cases, there will be no mandates requiring vaccinations, masks or social distancing. He has pushed for the state to be fully open, a stance he is using politically as he contemplates a 2024 presidential bid.
His 2022 gubernatorial reelection campaign is selling T-shirts and beer koozies that read “Don’t Fauci My Florida,” referring to Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top government infectious disease official. Fauci has pushed a more cautious approach that includes wearing masks in public.
The governor targeted Fauci during a speech this week at a summit organized by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian group. “I didn’t get elected to simply subcontract out leadership to some health bureaucrat,” DeSantis said.
At an Orlando new conference, DeSantis blamed the new outbreak on the disease’s seasonal pattern.
“We knew it was going to be low in May and it was. And we knew that at the end of June and July it would go up, because that’s what happened last year,” said DeSantis, who has been vaccinated.
But Salemi and other epidemiologists and doctors interviewed blame the spike on the state’s slowing vaccination rate, a decrease in mask-wearing and social distancing and the delta variant.
“It is extremely concerning because we’ve already seen what this more transmissible delta variant can do in places like India and Indonesia with a disproportionately low access to vaccines,” Salemi said.
Dr. Frederick Southwick, chief of the University of Florida medical school’s infectious disease division, said computer simulations show the delta strain will create “a marked surge in cases over the next three months.”
“The delta variant grows faster in human cells and can spread to others particularly in closed spaces even when wearing a mask,” he said. “The only effective way to be protected from the delta variant is to get vaccinated.”
Politics does impact vaccination rates, as some national conservative media personalities and politicians have downplayed or shown hostility toward inoculation programs. The state’s lowest rates are in conservative rural north Florida -- in some counties, fewer than 30% of adults are vaccinated.
While some of those counties have escaped a new outbreak, tiny Baker County near Jacksonville now has the most per capita active cases in the state while only 29% of residents 12 and older are vaccinated Former President Donald Trump got 85% of the county’s vote.
The rising number of cases and hospitalizations does appear to be driving more people to get their first shot. Florida DOH’s data shows 96,089 people got their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in the last week -- an increase over the previous week.