State records first significant drop in 10 weeks

Heather King, with UF Health Precision Health Research Center - The Villages, gives a nasal swab to a client for a self-administered COVID-19 test..

For the first time all summer, Florida has decreased its number of new weekly COVID-19 cases. This week, new infections dropped by 22,612 compared to the previous week, according to numbers released Friday by Florida Department of Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data reinforced the state’s report, showing a 15.3% drop in new cases since a Aug. 16 peak  and total hospital admissions across Florida nearly mirrored that drop with an almost 15% fall in the last week. The state had been in a rapid climb of new COVID-19 cases all summer, with a 10-week snapshot showing Florida went from 15,992 new cases for the week of June 25 to a peak of 151,852 during the week ending Aug. 20. Friday’s report reflected 129,240 new cases for the current week. The state’s new case positivity rate is currently 15.2%.

The last three consecutive weeks also have represented summer highs for the number of vaccination doses administered in the last 10 weeks, according to the Florida Department of Health. With the surge in immunizations, 69% of all eligible Floridians have now at least started the process, the state reported.

Locally, 72% of Sumter County’s population is vaccinated, 66% in Lake and 60% in Marion.

It’s a positive indicator in the midst of a delta variant that has proven to be more contagious than its predecessor variants, and more severe, especially for the unvaccinated. Experts say summer heat and rain mutually drove people inside together, which may have contributed to climbing infections in the previous weeks. Social behavior also plays a role, said Cindy Prins, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida, and Dr. Jeffrey Lowenkron, chief medical officer at The Villages Health.

“A lot of people have asked about this being a seasonal summertime thing,” Prins said, adding that there’s not enough long-term data to link case spikes to weather patterns. “... It’s more about people feeling like cases were low, a lot of us are vaccinated and it’s safe to do lots of things again, that’s where our spike came from.”

Masks and social distancing are two familiar ways people can limit spread while living life, Prins and Lowenkron said.

Continued community action to flatten the curve could determine whether this week’s trend will continue. Vaccinations, limiting time in crowds, social distancing and mask wearing are some of the ways people can avoid catching or spreading the more infectious delta variant, Lowenkron said. Double masking with a cloth mask over a procedural or surgical mask can also help, Prins said.

Florida is also attacking the virus for those who already have it with the opening of 21 state-sponsored sites to administer monoclonal antibodies, expanding the availability and awareness of the treatment. One of those sites is Barnstorm Theater in The Villages, which has seen about 230 patients daily since it opened. It is the most active of the locations operated by Garner, one of three contractors administering the treatments at the state sites. Appointments can be made at patientportalfl.com or patients who have tested positive can receive walk-up care.

The treatments can take less than 15 minutes, plus screening beforehand and about an hour of monitoring for side effects afterward.

Informed patients in The Villages have helped operations run smoothly, said JP Temperilli, senior project manager for Garner.

“We have a strong medical staff internally, and a competent population and well-informed population makes the process even better,” he said. “Most people are coming in as well-informed as they can be. They’re certainly interested in learning, open to anything and asking questions.”

Monoclonal antibodies can be given to patients in need regardless of whether or not they are vaccinated. DeSantis has said that means just about anybody age 50 and older, and Temperilli said very few sick patients at The Villages location have not received any treatment after screening.

Early care is key. Those whose symptoms advance too far must instead go to an emergency room.

“Overall case fatality rates are under 2%, whether patients get the antibody or not,” Lowenkron said. “The key is for those at a higher risk of hospitalization or dying, if they get they antibody they’ll do better. That’s the group they really want to get the antibody to.”

The vast majority of people who are vaccinated and sick, referred to as breakthrough cases, have had mild symptoms and recovered at home.

The Pfizer vaccine, consisting of two shots of an mRNA serum, has full approval from the Food and Drug Administration for ages 16 and older. Pfizer remains available to children ages 12 to 15 under emergency-use authorization, while the similar Moderna vaccine and the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine are available to adults 18 and older under emergency-use authorization.

Vaccine booster doses also are emerging as a tool to fight COVID-19. They are not yet available to the general public, though federal officials are discussing a White House goal of making them available this month. Those with weakened immune systems can talk to their doctor about whether a booster can help.

Vaccination is among the keys to protecting yourself, Lowenkron said.

“Resistors to the vaccines are talking about putting different, less effective manufactured products into their system,” Lowenkron said. “You can take manufactured vaccines or manufactured antibodies, or you can take manufactured medications. But the key is, if you’re going try to do something to reduce your risk and you want to do something other than get the virus, why not take the most effective thing first? None of the things anyone is taking now are naturally occurring compounds.”

Specialty Editor Bill Zimmerman can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5284, or bill.zimmerman@thevillagesmedia.com.