Digital generated image of variants of COVID-19. The FDA has deauthorized two medicines that were effective against delta infections but are not against omicron. Credit: Getty Images
The new omicron variant of COVID-19 is reportedly more contagious than the already highly transmissible delta variant, which peaked Florida COVID cases in August.
Proving the point, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the state saw more than 20,000 new cases as of Tuesday. That’s up from 12,915 new cases reported the day before.
As families get together for holiday festivities, New Year’s celebrations, and other wintertime gatherings, how will omicron affect Florida? Will it be as bad as the delta surge just months ago?
“It’s difficult to predict,” said Mary Mayhew, president and CEO of the Florida Hospital Association.
“The problem is it [omicron] appears to be more contagious — that it is rapidly infecting others,” she said in a phone interview. “So, ultimately, if it infects more individuals, there will still be a certain percentage, because of their other underlying conditions potentially, that will require hospitalization.”
Early research indicates illness from omicron variant is less severe, but, “if it affects a larger percentage of the population, even though it may be less severe in its impact, we still may see increased hospitalizations,” Mayhew said.
Even still, her industry group remains “optimistic” about avoiding the levels of hospitalizations seen during the delta wave.
“Delta was leading to far more acute severe illness and much younger, healthier individuals were being hospitalized because of delta,” she said.
“But, again, given how contagious omicron appears to be … we unfortunately may still see a number of individuals hospitalized simply because of the volume of individuals affected, not because of the severity, which is what we were seeing with delta,” Mayhew said.
“The numbers are still very small compared to where we were at the peak during the delta surge. So, during the delta surge, our peak in hospitalizations were slightly more than 17,000. Currently, we have nearly 1,500 individuals who are are hospitalized for COVID,” she said. “So we’re no where near where we were in August, but the numbers are certainly starting to increase again.”
Another worry arises from early data suggesting monoclonal antibody treatments — such as Regeneron, highly touted by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — is possibly less effective against omicron.
The New York Times reports that “two of the three monoclonal antibody treatments that doctors have depended on to keep COVID-19 patients from becoming seriously ill do not appear to thwart the latest version of the coronavirus.”
The two that may be less effective are made by Eli Lilli and Regeneron. The third, called sotrovimab, made by GlaxoSmithKline and Vir Biotechnology, is limited in supply, according to the Times.
CDC data from Tuesday showed 20,194 new cases of COVID-19 reported for Florida, up from 12,915 the day before.
It’s not yet clear how much the omicron variant has been responsible for the rise in COVID cases in Florida.
Jeremy Redfern, press secretary for the Florida Department of Health, said in an email to the Phoenix that the department expects to have “additional analysis as to the extent of the omicron variant in Florida in the coming days.”
He continued: “Unlike standard tests for COVID-19, sequencing and analyzing an entire genome requires equipment not available at most laboratories, and the overall process is more time-consuming.”
That said, the CDC estimates that the omicron variant could make up 73.4 percent of new cases.
Mayhew explained: “Once you start to see the national data, the national testing on the variants, we can assume that what we will start to see in the increases in cases will be attributable to this new omicron variant.”
As families gather for the holidays, she recommends people get vaccinated.
“Our focus remains on reducing hospitalizations, and the best way to reduce hospitalizations is to increase the vaccination rate,” Mayhew said.
As of Wednesday, the CDC reported that 13,517,297 Floridians have been fully vaccinated, or 62.9 percent of the population. At least 3,876,228 Floridians have received a booster dose, CDC reports.
“What we have experienced, certainly through delta, and what we are seeing in the experiences of other states related to omicron, is that vaccinated individuals are less likely to become hospitalized even if infected,” Mayhew said. “So getting vaccinated, getting the booster, that can make a huge difference in reducing hospitalizations and saving lives.”
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