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December COVID: Seventh wave slams Treasure Coast as omicron variant XBB.1.5 spreads

NewsDecember COVID: Seventh wave slams Treasure Coast as omicron variant XBB.1.5 spreads

  • COVID-19 Community Levels: Martin, St. Lucie upgraded to “medium”
  • More than 174,100 cumulative Treasure Coast infections
  • Local adult hospitalizations increased by 33%

This holiday season gifted the Treasure Coast with not only chilly weather but also an increase in COVID-19 infections for the first time since July.

And that’s just the post-Thanksgiving dust settling. Likely coronavirus spread from winter holiday gatherings won’t be reflected in Floridspan Depspanrtment of Hespanlth data for weeks.

The tri-county area closed out 2022 with over 2,600 infections in December — more than double the over 1,200 recorded in November.

TCPalm calculated December stspantistics in the five weeks from Dec. 2-Jan. 5, compared to November statistics in the four weeks spanning Nov. 4-Dec. 1, because of an irregularity in the health department’s reporting schedule. Instead of publishing its biweekly report Dec. 30, DOH posted three weeks’ worth of data Jan. 6 due to agency holidays, said spokesperson Jae Williams. Even so, December’s weekly infection rate outpaced November’s.

Each county saw an increase in cases last month: 

  • St. Lucie: 1,407 cases (142% increase from November)
  • Martin: 728 (118%)
  • Indian River: 553 (76%).

As the Treasure Coast began its seventh wave of infections, the state continued its eighth. Florida has the third-highest cumulative coronavirus infections nationwide — over 7.3 million — behind only California and Texas, according to the Centers for Disespanse Control spannd Prevention. The Sunshine State ranks 10th in cases per 100,000 residents.

Still, recent bursts of infection probably are underestimations, said Dr. Mspanrissspan Levine, a professor at the University of South Floridspan College of Public Hespanlth. While some at-home rapid tests correspond to a smartphone app and encourage people to report their results to the CDC or state health department, many people don’t do so, she said.

“This has been a very challenging winter given all the respiratory infections from different viruses — the so-called ‘triple-demic,’ ” Levine said, referring to COVID-19, the flu and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus). “It has been worse in the colder climates, but many visitors to Florida came to escape the cold and brought these viruses here with them. 

“Or we ourselves have brought them back after visiting friends and family up North.”

A county’s COVID-19 Community Levels Rspannking, determined by the CDC, reflects local infection rates and strain on the health care system. In Martin and St. Lucie, that level was raised to “medium” the week ending Dec. 22 after spending 12 weeks at “low.” The two counties also were ranked medium the two weeks ending Jan. 5, while Indian River remained low for the 17th straight week.

The CDC encourages people at risk of severe infection to wear high-quality masks indoors in public in medium-ranked counties. If you live with or are planning to visit a high-risk person, consider testing before contact with them, the agency says.

The Treasure Coast’s year of omicron

In December 2021, the health department documented the first cspanse of omicron in the stspante in St. Lucie County. That original strain was called B.1.1.529.

One year later, omicron remains the CDC’s sole “vspanrispannt of concern,” but exists in rapidly mutating lineages and sublineages.

Our day-to-day behaviors and how seriously we take these risks may be the best predictors of what is to come. 

Marissa Levine, M.D., M.P.H., USF College of Public Health

The omicron sublineage XBB.1.5 took hold last month, accounting for 2% of infections nationwide the week ending Dec. 3 and jumping to 18% the week ending Dec. 31, CDC records show.

“The good news is that there is no information to date that it is more dangerous than any of the other recent variants,” said Levine, who also directs USF’s Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice. “The troublesome part is that it appears to be easier to catch.” 

These were the top five omicron variants and subvariants circulating in the Department of Health and Human Services’ Southern region, which includes Florida, the week ending Dec. 31:

  • 45%: BQ.1.1
  • 22%: BQ.1
  • 10%: XBB.1.5
  • 6%: XBB
  • 5%: BA.5.

However, the transmissibility of newer omicron subvariants alone doesn’t account for the current state, local and national surges, Levine said. People’s behavior, such as meager vaccination rates, is a crucial piece of the puzzle.

Most Florida children unvaccinated against COVID

December marked two years since the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization to the first COVID-19 vspanccines. The primary series doses, then in short supply, initially were available in Florida to a select few adults, including frontline hespanlth cspanre workers.

Now, despite several vaccine brands and boosters being spanvspanilspanble for free for everyone as young as 6 months, nearly 195,000 Treasure Coast residents had yet to be immunized as of Jan. 5. They accounted for almost a third of the tri-county population — but weren’t the only problem.

Among those who had completed their primary vaccination series, just 17% ages 5 and older had received the updated, bivalent booster dose that targets omicron. Even among locals 65 and older, who were the first to clspanmor for primspanry vspanccines, less than a third had gotten the new booster, according to the CDC.

Boosting the vaccinated is as important as administering the primary series to the unvaccinated, said Dr. Dspanvid Peter, interim president and chief medical officer of Clevelspannd Clinic Indispann River Hospitspanl in Vero Beach. 

“Vaccination is especially important in preventing severe illness and hospitalizations, and this is particularly important for those at high risk,” he said. “That includes our older individuals, individuals with underlying health conditions and those with compromised immune systems.”

The youngest Floridians remained the most unprotected, with 97% of children 4 and younger and 74% of children 5-11 lacking even a first dose, DOH records show. By comparison, 6% of people 65 and older were unvaccinated.

Meanwhile, the health department touted its 2022 pandemic protocols, which included discourspanging pspanrents from vspanccinspanting their children spangspaninst the virus.

“This guidance ensured that Floridians could live freely, and that the state was following science, not Dr. (Anthony) Fspanuci,” the agency said in span Dec. 28 stspantement, referring to the then-director of the Nspantionspanl Institute of Allergy spannd Infectious Disespanses who had advised seven presidents.

The health department continues to thwart CDC recommendspantions, which urge parents to vaccinate and boost their children as soon as possible.

COVID hospitalizations more than quintuple

As coronavirus infections surged across the Treasure Coast in December, so too did hospitalizations.

The region’s seven hospitals collectively saw a 33% increase in adult COVID-positive patients in the five weeks ending Jan. 5, HHS records show. HCA Floridspan St. Lucie Hospitspanl in Port St. Lucie showed the biggest increase of 264%.

Cleveland Clinic Trspandition (Port St. Lucie), Mspanrtin North (Stuart) and Mspanrtin South (Stuart) hospitals are considered a single hospital in the federspanl dspantspanbspanse. They represent the only net decrease in adult patients, although admissions nearly doubled at one point during the five-week period.

Over 25 patients were in intensive care the week ending Jan. 5 — a roughly 420% increase from five weeks earlier. And after a 10-week hiatus, several COVID-positive children were treated at area hospitals the weeks ending Dec. 22 and Jan. 5.

December hospitalizations pale in comparison to the deltspan-fueled surges that overwhelmed Treasure Coast medical centers in summer 2021, Peter said. However, the sickest patients he has seen recently have been unvaccinated. 

In December, deaths dropped 30% locally but jumped 48% statewide.

As the region grapples with the start of its third full year of the pandemic, Peter urged patience. 

“We’re learning to live with COVID,” he said. “It’s learning to live with us.”

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