Florida leads nation in COVID deaths for third month in a row

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For the third month in a row, Florida logged more COVID-19 deaths than anywhere else in America.

The state’s COVID death toll grew by 1,614 people in August, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows. As coronavirus omicron subvariants swept the state this summer, Florida fatalities topped the nation from June through August.

It’s also the third summer in a row Florida has been No. 1 for COVID deaths.

The state became the national epicenter for the disease in August 2020, after Gov. Ron DeSantis began allowing businesses and public places to reopen. The state again became the COVID fatality capital of America last year in July and August, months after state officials suspended all remaining pandemic restrictions.

The disease has killed at least 80,027 Floridians since the start of the pandemic, excluding more than 3,000 victims whom state auditors found by combing through records from 2020 in which physicians classified someone's cause of death as COVID, but the state Health Department did not.

This August 2022 photo provided by Pfizer shows vials of the company's updated COVID-19 vaccine during production in Kalamazoo, Mich.  
 U.S. regulators have authorized updated COVID-19 boosters, the first to directly target today's most common omicron strain. The move on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2022,  by the Food and Drug Administration tweaks the recipe of shots made by Pfizer and rival Moderna  that already have saved millions of lives.  (Pfizer via AP)

COVID is especially deadly to the elderly. Florida’s population is older than most states.

Florida added 454 people to its COVID death toll since the state last published its biweekly pandemic report Aug. 26. That’s less than the average weekly increase during the two weeks covered by that report. But it’s higher than the weekly sums logged in April and May.

Even so, the new federal data also shows that the current COVID wave is continuing to decline statewide.

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Hospitals across Florida tended to 2,850 COVID-positive patients, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported Friday, down from a summertime peak of more than 4,000 in late July.

Health officials logged about 39,000 new COVID cases in the past week, CDC figures released Friday show. That’s the smallest amount since early May. An untold number of infections don’t make it into official statistics because of the rise of at-home tests, whose results aren’t recorded.

Sewage from across the state also is turning up less of the virus, wth results showing fewer coronavirus particles compared to four weeks ago. Readings from Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Orange, Seminole, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties all show declines, according to Boston-based laboratory Biobot Analytics.

Wastewater can reveal COVID trends faster than official case counts. Infected people often shed the most virus at the beginning of their infection.

FILE Ñ A health care worker administers a COVID-19 vaccine in Washington, Feb. 4, 2021. The surge of the Omicron subvariant BA.5 is a reminder that we need to take precautions to avoid illness, slow the relentless cycle of new variants and minimize the disruption to our daily lives. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)
FILE Ñ A health care worker administers a COVID-19 vaccine in Washington, Feb. 4, 2021. The surge of the Omicron subvariant BA.5 is a reminder that we need to take precautions to avoid illness, slow the relentless cycle of new variants and minimize the disruption to our daily lives. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

Meanwhile, Florida pharmacies were preparing this weekend for new COVID vaccines that target the pathogen’s omicron mutation and its subvariants, after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave them final approval Thursday.

Several Publix pharmacies in Palm Beach County said Friday they expect to receive the new doses this weekend. CVS and Walgreens are scheduling and administering shots, the companies said Friday.

These shots, tested on mice, are designed to target the BA.4 and BA.5 omicron subvariants. As the latest viral wave, driven by BA.5, wanes, the BA.4.6 subvariant comprises a larger share of infections, tests collected by the CDC shows. But the new subvariant is so similar to the ones the new vaccine targets that it could effectively fight new mutations of omicron subvariants.

Virtually every COVID infection across Florida and the U.S. that have been documented this year were caused by omicron and its mutations.

The new virus-fighters come to a state whose vaccination rate has barely budged since June, despite the spread of omicron subvariants. About 81% of Florida residents have gotten at least one shot in their arms, the CDC reported Friday, including about 28% with boosters.

People may have been waiting for the new, omicron-focused vaccines, said Dr. Larry Bush, an infectious disease specialist and former president of the Palm Beach County Medical Society.

“Perhaps folks were hoping and waiting for this combination vaccine,” Bush said.

People should get the so-called “updated boosters” — Moderna’s is approved for adults 18 and older, Pfizer, 12 and up — at least two months after their most recent dose of the vaccine, the federal government says.

Smaller pharmacies, which have also placed orders, expect to receive the updated boosters next week. If a shot-seeker lacks insurance, pharmacies will not receive reimbursement from the federal government after administering the vaccine.

That’s because federal money to pay for shots dried up in April when Republican senators blocked a $10 billion COVID bill using the legislative procedure known as the filibuster. That requires 60 votes to overcome, but 52 senators, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, voted against ending a filibuster.

Smaller pharmacies pay out of pocket to vaccinate the uninsured. “We would never say, ‘No, we wouldn’t give it to you because you can't pay,’” said pharmacist Jessica Beal, of Hobbes Pharmacy on Merritt Island in Brevard County.

The federal government will run out of money by the end of this year to buy more COVID vaccines, the Biden Administration has warned. By 2023, people would start paying out of pocket for costs not covered by insurance.

COVID has infected more than 7 million people statewide.

Chris Persaud is The Palm Beach Post's data reporter. Email him at cpersaud@pbpost.com.

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Florida leads nation COVID deaths though cases keep declining