Floridians largely in the dark on omicron; state health officials say little about cases

Orange County utilities confirmed omicron variant in wastewater

By: - December 14, 2021 3:49 pm

Novel coronavirus SARS CoV2, which causes COVID-19. The virus is now creating mutations that are spreading in the United States and elsewhere. Credit: National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

With county officials detecting omicron in more samples of wastewater in Central Florida, the state health department has yet to report any new COVID variant cases, even as county officials confirmed that omicron found in sewage water means that the virus is here.

The new variant has now been found in wastewater in Orange County, a major tourism area that includes part of Disney World. Earlier, omicron was detected in wastewater in Altamonte Springs in Seminole County.

Orange County Utilities on Tuesday confirmed to the Florida Phoenix that its wastewater analysis found omicron in Orange County.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings is urging residents five and older to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as the new omicron continues to be detected in Central Florida through wastewater tests, according to Sarah Lux, spokesperson for Orange County Utilities.

Lux said in an email to the Phoenix Tuesday:

“Initial results have detected the variant in two wastewater facilities – the South Water Reclamation Facility and the Northwest Water Reclamation Facility. This could suggest the omicron variant is starting to spread in Orange County.”

However, she cautioned that “results may not be entirely accurate. Upcoming samples will provide more insight as to the circulation of this variant in the community.”

She said that even though omicron is emerging, the delta and delta plus variant remains the most prevalent in Florida.

The omicron variant first emerged in South Africa and has been identified in at least 34 states and numerous countries, as of Tuesday, according to the New York Times.

Still, the Florida Department of Health hasn’t responded to multiple requests for comment from the Phoenix about omicron variant cases.

As of Tuesday afternoon, state health officials have confirmed only two omicron cases in Florida, one in Tampa and another in St. Lucie County. Miami-Dade County had reported one case of omicron, according to an email from a spokeswoman for Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.

But since omicron continues to be detected in wastewater samples, some county officials are saying the variant has likely caused more infections.

On Monday, a city official from Altamonte Springs in Central Florida reported omicron in a process that conducts tests on samples of sewage or wastewater in that area, suggesting that the virus has infected residents.

Meanwhile, testing of wastewater in Altamonte Springs had launched last year, said City Manager Frank Martz.

But the City of Orlando, not Orange County, hasn’t launched any efforts to test sewage for the omicron variant.

“We are not conducting these tests at this time,” Samantha Holsten, public information office, said in an email to the Phoenix.

According to a map tracking omicron by The New York Times, 34 states plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have reported cases.

The Times has reported cases in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

As it stands now, state health officials will not distribute detailed reports about confirmed cases of the troubling variant called omicron, raising concerns from a state lawmaker regarding transparency issues with state health officials.

Earlier during the pandemic, the state health department created lengthy reports that were made available to the public with details about case information.

That said, state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith argued that the state’s decision to stop reporting was a “political decision that did not consider the health and safety of Floridians.”

In a phone conversation with the Phoenix, Smith said that when the state health department “ended daily COVID-19 reporting in June, Floridians were kept in the dark on the real threat of COVID, even as delta surged.” (The health department continues to provide weekly COVID reports.)

Smith, who is a Democrat representing part of Orange County, is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Health, over the state’s refusal to provide certain public records related to COVID-19.

He said the case is ongoing against the state health department, but that Floridians should have the right to know about data related to omicron and other variants circulating in the state.

“We have a lawsuit against the department of health because Floridians have a constitutional right to public health data…. We’re not asking for patients’ names or social security numbers, we’re asking for aggregate data,” he said.

“With omicron confirmed in Florida, this is just one more reason why the [Florida] DOH should resume detailed daily reporting. We can’t wait to find out how much omicron has spread through Florida; we can’t wait to hear that once a week.”

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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.