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Omicron could sneak into Jacksonville without our knowing it

John Minchillo

Florida screened just about 4.5% of positive COVID tests for variants over the past six months — far fewer than most other states.

Florida's 4.5% screening rate ranks 40th in the country for the portion of COVID cases screened and shared with GISAID, the open access database used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organizations, the Florida Department of Health and other public and private labs.

The lack of screening raises the possibility that variants like omicron could exist in Florida without being detected.

The state stresses that it does screen for variants. "Since the pandemic's beginning, the department has conducted sequencing efforts and maintains surveillance of emerging variants in Florida," Samantha Epstein, with the Florida Department of Health in Duval County, said in an email.

But over the past month, Florida has screened for variants and shared the data with GISAID for less than 2% of COVID cases. California, in contrast, has screened about 8% of its cases for variant strains in the past month. It has discovered six omicron cases.

Omicron has not yet been detected in Florida, though it has emerged in at least 16 other states, according to the CDC: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.

Some early research suggests that people with omicron are less likely to have severe symptoms, but the CDC says it is still unknown whether the variant is more transmissible than the delta variant or whether it causes more severe disease.

Identifying omicron cases is key to learning more about the variant and how to combat it, according to the CDC.

Labs screen positive COVID tests for variants using genomic sequencing, a method of monitoring mutations in the virus. States like California and Minnesota, with more aggressive COVID surveillance programs, have been among the first to identify omicron variant cases.

Labs can also screen wastewater for variants, a method that can identify COVID case trends before testing does. Some counties in Florida, including Orange and Seminole counties, have been using wastewater testing to look out for omicron cases. Duval County has not joined the trend.

The area's utility company, JEA, implemented wastewater COVID testing early on in the pandemic but stopped it more than a year ago, in September 2020.

"If we're going to invest in research, we need to have a measurable impact on the community," JEA spokeswoman Karen McAllister said about why they haven't restarted wastewater testing for COVID and variants. "Once testing became available and results returning around quickly, we didn't see that same value as we did initially when the testing started."

According to McAllister, JEA spent $25,000 for the five months of COVID wastewater testing it did. The samples were being sent a lab in Arizona for testing. She said there are no current plans to resume that testing.

"If there were particularly requests for that data, we would do it. We would be ready to mobilize," McAllister said. "But we haven't had those requests in the recent past."

Meanwhile, COVID cases in Duval haven't spiked thus far after the Thanksgiving holiday. On trend with most of last month, the county recorded fewer than 300 COVID cases last week.

About 60% of eligible residents are vaccinated against COVID, compared to 69% statewide.

Claire joined WJCT as a reporter in August 2021. She was previously the local host of NPR's Morning Edition at WUOT in Knoxville, Tennessee. During her time in East Tennessee, her coverage of the COVID pandemic earned a Public Media Journalists’ Association award for investigative reporting. You can reach Claire at (904) 250-0926 or on Twitter @ClaireHeddles.