COVID levels soar in Northeast Florida; masks recommended indoors
Much of Northeast Florida has returned to high levels of COVID-19, meaning people are advised to wear masks in stores, theaters and other indoor public places.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now lists Clay, Duval and Nassau counties as spots of high COVID risk based on new cases, hospital admissions and the percentage of hospital beds used.
Baker and St. Johns counties are rated as medium. The CDC recommends masks in areas rated high but not in those rated medium.
Putnam County remains in the low category.
Statewide, more Floridians live in high-risk counties than anywhere else in the country — 86% of the population compared with 22% nationally. But the state's guidance on masks is far more lenient than the CDC's.
The Florida Department of Health says masks are a personal choice and businesses should not require employees to wear them. Gov. Ron DeSantis has labeled masks and other precautions as "COVID theater."
The number of hospital inpatients has been climbing around the state. COVID-19 patients filled 3,324 hospital beds in Florida as of Tuesday, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That was up from 3,105 as recently as Thursday.
Duval reported 260 cases and 11.7 hospital admissions per 100,000 people, according to the latest CDC figures. About 2.6% of hospital beds were occupied by patients with COVID-19, the data showed.
In comparison, St. Johns County recorded 251 cases and 9.4 hospital admissions per 100,000 people, with 4.3% of beds filled by COVID patients.
Two subvariants of the omicron variant are raising concern — BA.4 and BA.5, both more infectious and better able to evade existing immunity. But cases and hospitalizations remain far lower than earlier in the year.
Jason Salemi, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida, attributes the COVID spread to a large older population, waning immunity from prior infections, lack of coordinated effort to stop the disease's spread, and more and more people socializing indoors as the summer heats up.
"All of this is kind of a perfect storm of increasing case rates, increasing hospitalization rates," Salemi told WUSF Public Media.
While the caseload is not as high as earlier pandemic times, Salemi said the news is worrisome and means residents should take steps to protect themselves.