JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – For the first time since the pandemic began, one local hospital group has lifted its mask mandates in parts of its buildings. It’s happening as the average number of reported COVID cases are on the rise in Florida.
The state is now averaging nearly 3,300 cases a day. The graph below shows the number of cases reported to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention over the last 30 days.
Hundreds of health professionals in all five Baptist hospitals no longer have to wear masks in non-clinical areas, like meeting rooms and administrative areas. News4JAX spoke with experts at UF Health on Monday about the recent uptick in local cases and how the BA.2 variant compares to omicron and delta.
BA.2 has now become the most dominant COVID infection in the state of Florida, according to local doctors. The state’s positivity rate is up to 6.1% — the highest it has been since February.
We asked Chad Neilsen, UF Health’s director of infection prevention, about the differences between the three variants.
“What we know about BA.2 is it’s very similar to the omicron, it’s original variant, that it’s less severe for most individuals versus delta or even the very first wave of COVID that we saw,” Neilsen said. “Right now, the delta variant — that was really our most catastrophic and most severe variant of COVID that we’ve seen throughout this pandemic, and omicron in this BA.2 variant just hasn’t lived up to that, thankfully.”
Neilsen said there is still a risk that people can end up hospitalized by the BA.2 variant, but that’s most likely in individuals who are not vaccinated or who have other underlying medical conditions. Neilsen said the BA.2 variant is more contagious than its predecessors.
What doctors can’t quantify, however, is how many Floridians are testing positive at home.
“We know that at home testing has varied throughout the pandemic. But right now, we don’t capture as many people because testing sites are shut down and at home testing has kind of lagged in terms of people’s attitudes towards it,” Nelisen said.
While the BA.2 variant’s symptoms are less severe, Neilsen warns the next mutation has the possibility of being more harmful. Like many in the state of Florida, Neilsen said, local health officials also have COVID-19 fatigue, but adds vaccination is still the best protection.
“We know the masking mandates across the country are starting to either ebb this way, or here in the state of Florida, largely, we have no mandates,” Neilsen said. “And I think that’s OK as long as people are taking those simple steps and getting vaccinated.”
News4JAX checked with UF Health, St. Vincent’s, Baptist Health and Wolfson Children’s Hospital on Monday. Combined, in all of those hospitals, 25 people were hospitalized with COVID-19.