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COVID Cases Surge in Florida As Officials Focus On Vaccine Rollout

Florida’s experiencing a resurgence of coronavirus cases following the holidays. The state is continuing to rely on its vaccination, testing and public education strategies to curb the spread of the virus, even as health experts predict another spike in deaths in the coming weeks.

A White House Coronavirus Task Force report issued recently states Florida is in full coronavirus resurgence, “which will drive significant fatalities for many weeks, and stress the staffing of the hospital system.”

Since the start of the new year, infections have topped more than 10,000 each day, according to the Florida Department of Health’s coronavirus dashboard. The statewide infection rate is almost 11%. More than 7,500 people are currently hospitalized with the virus.

State Surgeon General Scott Rivkees updated the state Senate Select Committee on Pandemic Preparedness and Response.

“There have been one-point-five million individuals who’ve had COVID. We’ve had more than twenty-three thousand individuals who’ve sadly passed away to this virus. In terms of how we compare in capita to other states. We’re 28th in terms of number of cases per capita. And 22nd in terms of the individuals who have lost their lives to COVID-19.”

Some counties are seeing a much more rapid rate of infection. In Bay County, the seven-day infection rate - the percentage of tests that were positive — hit 21% last week. The county has reported 246 deaths since the pandemic began.

“During the holidays there was a spike from Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s gatherings,” said Robert Carroll, chairman of the Bay County Board of County Commissioners. “In our household, we had to do a much different Christmas and New Year and not have the gatherings.”

Despite the surge in infections, the board isn’t considering any additional local mitigation efforts, Carroll said. “You can’t punish anyone. You can’t fine anyone if they don’t wear a mask,” he said.

“We’ve encouraged everyone from day one - by doing media campaigns. We’ve done newspaper, radio, billboards, everything, encouraging everyone to do their part in this, be safe, keep your social distance, wear your mask.”

Elsewhere in the Big Bend region, rural Liberty County is among the highest in the state for new daily cases per capita with 152 new daily cases per 100,000 people, data from Johns’ Hopkins University shows.

Florida is racing to curb the spread of COVID-19. The state’s hoping to do that by getting more people vaccinated as quickly as possible.

Right now, those efforts are geared toward people over 65, healthcare workers and first responders.

State Surgeon General Scott Rivkees says officials are also continuing to test people and educate them on safety measures they can take to slow the spread.

“We have issued public messaging in terms of how the public can protect themselves. Many of this based on CDC guidance, which continuously gets updated through our website, social media,” Rivkees said. “We have distributed millions and millions of masks to the public, as this has been shown to be an effective mitigation strategy.”

Rivkees says the state is monitoring the presence of a new, more contagious strain of the virus - which was first identified in the United Kingdom.

“This was detected in Florida right before New Year’s. This is more transmissible than earlier viruses about fifty percent more. if you have a ten percent risk of getting COVID following exposure, now that goes up to about fifteen percent.”

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.