Experts see signs Delta may have peaked

Melanie Stefan, left, of the Village of Hemingway, gets a vaccine booster shot from Nathan Mularsky at The Villages Health Colony Care Center.

With cases of COVID-19 declining, some health officials say the highly infectious delta variant might be running its course. The seven-day average of cases is down to 135,749 in the U.S. as of Friday, with 13,121 of those in Florida. Nationally, that’s a decline of 14% since last month’s high, with Florida’s total down 40%.  “I think we have probably seen the peak and are starting on hopefully a downward trend in the delta variant,” said Cindy Prins, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida. She stopped short of declaring certainty: “Some of that depends on what we do.”

In theory, an end to the delta variant’s run is natural, said Prins and Dr. Jeffrey Lowenkron, chief medical officer at The Villages Health — its infectious nature means that it rapidly finds the people it’s capable of infecting, but it also runs out of hosts fairly quickly.

“In Florida, I’m not surprised to see numbers starting to come down,” Lowenkron said. “The main thing is that it’s going to run out of people that it’s able to infect.”

In vaccinated people, antibodies either fight off the virus or limit illness to mild cases for the vast majority of those who get sick. Unvaccinated people, who comprise the vast majority of cases requiring hospitalization or leading to death, must create their own antibodies while sick to fight off the virus.

At UF Health Central Florida’s two hospitals, 103 patients were being treated for COVID-19 on Monday. That includes 49 at The Villages Hospital. Both numbers are down by about a third since each peaked in mid-August.

Relaxed approaches to preventive measures including vaccines, masks and social distance contributed to delta’s ability to spread, Prins said. In June, cases were about one-tenth what they are now.

“When we’re telling people that things are looking better, people are very fast to throw away those precautions that were helping to cause a decrease in cases,” she said.

A handful of patients received the vaccine Friday at The Villages Health’s Colony Care Center. One of them, Melanie Stefan, received a booster dose after asking her doctor about it. She’s preparing to travel for her daughter’s wedding next month in Chicago.

“We’ve been wearing masks again for about three weeks now,” said Stefan, of the Village of Hemingway, who had become fully vaccinated in February. A retired health and physical education teacher, Stefan said she manages two health-risk factors that have her taking precautions such as frequent handwashing and asking for outdoor tables at restaurants.

“I would not want to take chances even if I was healthy,” she added. “And my husband feels the same way.”

Vaccinations continue to increase, with 128,972 people inoculated in Florida from Sept. 3 to 9. That includes 2,009 in Lake, 1,970 in Marion and 355 in Sumter.

Food and Drug Administration vaccine chief Dr. Peter Marks said Friday he is “very, very hopeful” that vaccinations for children ages 5 to 11 can begin by year’s end. And President Joe Biden on Thursday laid out far-reaching new federal coronavirus vaccine requirements that could impact 100 million Americans, aiming to stop the delta variant. That plan includes requiring vaccinations of workers for companies with 100 or more employees, although Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statement Monday saying Florida would stand with its citizens against any unlawful vaccine mandates.

Florida recorded 2,448 deaths from Sept. 10 to 16, its highest number during the delta pandemic and more than 14 times the 172 deaths recorded from July 2 to 8. Typically whenever new cases decline, it takes a while before reported fatalities follow suit. A lag in reporting also causes numbers to update over time as paperwork is recorded for cases and deaths.

One message that resonated before the vaccine was available focused on “flattening the curve,” which led to people masking up and social distancing to limit spread.

“If every person who has it infects less than one person, cases will go down,” he said.

Ways to prevent spread or personal infection are familiar: social distancing, handwashing, mask wearing and quarantining when showing possible symptoms, he said.

Paying extra attention to such precautions during travel can also help prevent spread, Lowenkron said.

While the decrease is a good sign, case totals in Florida as recently as June were less than a tenth of the latest numbers.

While mask wearing seems to be making a return in some settings, Prins said, double masking as detailed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is another step people can take for additional precautions. And social distancing has fallen by the wayside from what she’s observed — focusing on keeping 6 feet between you and others when possible could help.

“It’s still a really great way of protecting yourself from getting infected,” she said.

Specialty Editor Bill Zimmerman can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5284, or The Associated Press contributed to this article.