Coronavirus cases have been steadily rising in Florida for more than a month.

The Florida Department of Health reported nearly 20,860 new cases for the week ending April 21 in its latest report released Friday, up from 15,623 cases the previous week.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has also gone up. As of Tuesday, April 26, federal health officials say there were 985 COVID positive patients in the state’s hospitals.

Still, that is nowhere near the five-figure numbers seen in previous surges, notes Jason Salemi, epidemiologist with the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health.

“So, we don’t like to see the numbers increasing, but it is important to remember that they remain at very low levels comparatively to the rest of the pandemic,” he said.

Salemi continues to closely monitor coronavirus data for Florida and the nation and visualizes it in an online dashboard. He said he is concerned about how quickly some parts of Florida have seen an uptick, with most new cases coming from the state’s five largest counties.

Salemi said in the past two weeks the two most populous counties, Miami Dade and Broward, saw their cases double. Hillsborough, Orange and Palm Beach counties saw 50% increases. 

The state’s positivity rate for new cases has risen to 6.1%.

Factoring hospitalizations

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  changed the way it makes recommendations for COVID guidance in February. While it used to prioritize cases and positive tests, now it places more weight on hospitalizations.

Even though parts of Florida have what the CDC considers “substantial” or “high” COVID transmission, the agency still considers the state to be at a “low” level when factoring in hospitalizations and deaths, meaning health officials would not advise residents to wear masks more often or make other changes to their behaviors.

“Clearly the newer measures don’t do a good job at alerting us to transmission. And that’s important because there’s still a lot of vulnerable people in our communities that even though a lot of people aren’t landing in the hospital, the risk to those individuals may be extremely high, especially when we have such pronounced spread,” Salemi explained.

The rise in cases is due in part to highly transmissible subvariants of the omicron strain, including BA.2 and BA.2.12. The former now accounts for a majority of new cases nationally while the latter is quickly catching up in the Northeast, which is seeing the highest increase in cases so far.

The nation does not seem to be seeing the same explosion in cases that occurred during the omicron surge this winter.

Salemi suspects the large numbers of people either vaccinated against COVID-19 or who recovered from omicron infection are providing added layers of protection that he hopes continue to dull the impacts of these subvariants.

While it’s fortunate that the current uptick is still minimal when compared to previous periods of the pandemic, Salemi does point out that the number of reported cases could be an even greater underestimation of actual cases than during other times.

More people are using at-home tests, many testing sites have closed in the community and people are less likely to get tested unless they are symptomatic.

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