BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – Throughout Florida in June, COVID-19 case counts held steady, vaccination and testing rates dropped and the more contagious delta strain of the virus spread in the Sunshine State and elsewhere.
U.S. experts now warn that the emergence of the delta variant and other strains could slow the “return to normal” many Americans hoped to see in 2021, News 6 partner Florida Today reports.
On June 4, the Florida Department of Health, or FDOH, ceased releasing daily reports in favor of a weekly format that contained significantly less information. Jay Wolfson, a professor of public health at the University of South Florida, said that doesn’t mean the agency is no longer tracking the virus.
“I am reasonably convinced that the State Department of Health is continuing its internal monitoring and surveillance cases, but we’re testing less,” Wolfson said. “It makes it tough to know what’s happening out there.”
As of July 1, Brevard has seen 295,935 COVID-19 cases, an increase of 1,343 new cases since June 4. At the height of the pandemic, the county saw increases of 150 or more each day.
Over the past week, Brevard saw a case positivity rate of 7.7%, higher than the 5.2% across the rest of Florida. The case positivity has risen since the last week of May, when new case positivity sat at 3.9%.
The World Health Organization recommends that an area’s positivity rate remain below 5%. Higher positivity rates could indicate that an area is not testing enough residents, potentially missing COVID-19 cases.
According to the CDC’s data tracker, 52.2% of the total population in Brevard has at least one dose of the novel coronavirus vaccine, and 51.4% are fully vaccinated. Among Brevard’s 65 and older population, 87% have received at least one dose and 76.8% are fully vaccinated.
Experts have suggested that up to 75% vaccination is necessary for herd immunity to develop and protect the population against the spread of disease. As vaccination rates slow, it appears less likely that the U.S. will reach herd immunity quickly.
Many people have focused too much on the death rate, Wolfson said, and ignored other negative outcomes from the virus. COVID-19 “long haulers” who suffer significant long-term effects show that the virus has risks beyond just death.
“This will not necessarily kill young people, but it’s going to create, we think, the possibility of a large flare of chronic disease in the population, which is going to require lifetime attention,” Wolfson said.
The spread of more deadly and contagious and possibly more lethal COVID-19 strains such as the delta variant, first recorded in India, have raised concerns that the country will not be able to continue easing COVID-19 restrictions as quickly as planned.
Across the U.S., it’s estimated that 25% of new infections are due to the delta variant.
Los Angeles County public health officials advised even vaccinated people to wear masks indoors as the county witnessed a spike in COVID-19 cases.
According to FDOH data, as of Thursday five delta variant cases had been confirmed in Brevard County. Miami-Dade lead the state with 33 infections connected to the delta variant.
As of Thursday, four people had died from the delta variant in Florida.
Wolfson said pockets of the population with low vaccination rates allows for new variants to develop.
“That unvaccinated population can help to create a new strain of the virus, which, in the worst case, would be immune to the vaccines that we are using now, which appear to be working against the effects of the viruses,” Wolfson said.
Although cases appear flat with a slight upward trend, testing volume has dropped, Wolfson noted. That could mean that Florida is underestimating its COVID-19 cases, but it’s hard to say.
Testing has especially decreased among the 18-30 age range, Wolfson said. That same age range has lower vaccination rates than older populations.
Other measures that could indicate increased community spread in lieu of good case data are deaths and hospitalizations. Deaths have not jumped, but fewer data is publicly available from hospitals about COVID-19 vaccination rates.
“Given the low rate of vaccination among the 18-35 population, and the natural likelihood that population serving as a reservoir for continued variations, means that we just need to be careful and not take for granted that we’re healthier than we were last July,” Wolfson said. “(We can slow the spread by) being responsible, being respectful and exercising common sense, and remembering the modification to the Smokey the Bear line: in this case, only you can prevent COVID.”