FL officials break silence on new, more transmissible COVID strain; other variants now emerging in U.S.

By: - January 28, 2021 1:54 pm

A man hospitalized with COVID-19 is given medicine. Credit: Getty Images

State officials have finally disclosed at least some information about the new, more transmissible COVID-19 variant circulating in Florida, following weeks of silence on the issue.

The data — a list of 19 counties where the potentially more lethal strain called B.1.1.7 has emerged — came after the Florida Phoenix used a state law to request public records on the public health crisis that could help inform Floridians.

The department complied, in part, with the request this week, providing information about 92 variant cases across the 19 counties. The department has yet to provide information on the gender and ages or age ranges of the people who were infected by this particular variant.

In addition, Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees and the Florida Department of Health still have not done the kind of broad communications — news conferences, press releases, Facebook and Twitter posts — that officials in other states have announced related to the troubling COVID variants.

So far, cases of the particular strain that first appeared in the United Kingdom have been identified in 19 out of the 67 counties in Florida. The highest number of cases are in Broward County, with 28, followed by Miami-Dade with 23, as of Thursday.

What’s even more concerning is that other, more troubling COVID-19 variants have now made their way to the United States, as South Carolina recorded the first U.S. cases of the variant first detected in South Africa and the first U.S. case of the Brazil variant was detected in Minnesota.

According to an Associated Press report, state officials announced Monday that the Minnesota case involved a person who recently traveled to Brazil and “became ill in the first week of January.”

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Thursday that people should “avoid travel at this time” to prevent the spread of the South Africa variant called B 1.351.

“CDC is early in its efforts to understand this variant and will continue to provide updates as we learn more,” the agency said in a written statement.

“At this time, we have no evidence that infections by this variant cause more severe disease. Like the UK and Brazilian variants, preliminary data suggests this variant may spread more easily and quickly than other variants.”

Meanwhile, Florida and California have the highest number of United Kingdom variant cases in the nation, with 92, according to the latest data from the CDC. (The cases identified are based on a sampling of specimens and do not represent the total number of B.1.1.7 cases across the nation, according to the CDC.)

Hillsborough County in Tampa has seen seven cases of the new strain, but that number could increase as federal officials earlier warned of the COVID-19 variant potentially becoming the dominant strain by March.

Now that the public has at least some idea of where the UK variant has emerged, people can take measures to curb the virus, such as doubling up on masks or other actions. In addition, the state could be considering broader measures, such as a statewide mask mandate or changes in the full reopening of businesses.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has said he will not pursue another lockdown in Florida. And he has been against a statewide mask mandate.

Residents in the area are encouraged to follow the same safety measures first implemented in the global pandemic such as wearing a mask, social distancing and avoiding crowds, said Kevin Watler, a spokesman for the Hillsborough County health department.

“The message continues to be the same as it has been,” Watler said in an email to the Phoenix.

“We also encourage everyone to get vaccinated. At this time the vaccine is not available for many people, but over time it will be.”

Watler added that Tampa residents should “stay home if you’re not feeling well, wash your hands often, cover coughs and sneezes, and clean and disinfect often,” as other precautionary measures to combat the spread of the COVID-19 mutations.

The Florida health department said in a written statement about variant cases:

“Florida is a national leader in sequencing for mutations of the COVID-19 virus. In fact, as of January 19, the Florida Department of Health has sequenced 3,470 COVID-19 specimens to date and is sequencing 200 more samples per week. By leading in sequencing, the Department is actively looking for the variant in Florida, which is why more cases are being discovered in Florida.”

92 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant have been discovered in these counties:

Broward County– 28 cases.

Miami-Dade – 23

Palm Beach – 9

Hillsborough – 7

Seminole – 6

Pinellas – 4

Osceola – 2

Lee – 2

Brevard – 1

Charlotte – 1

Collier – 1

Escambia – 1

Hendry – 1

Martin – 1

Pasco – 1

Polk – 1

Sumter – 1

Suwannee – 1

Volusia – 1

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Issac Morgan
Issac Morgan

Issac Morgan is a 2009 graduate of Florida A&M University's School of Journalism, and a proud native of Tallahassee. He has covered city council and community events at the Gadsden County Times, worked as a sports news assistant at the Tallahassee Democrat, a communications specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and as a proofreader at the Florida Law Weekly.