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Spectators without masks crowd a recent concert in Florida. Rich Fury/Getty Images
  • Florida leads the nation in new COVID-19 cases, as well as in deaths attributed to the disease.
  • The state’s governor has urged people to get vaccinated, but he has tried to block local mask mandates and has insisted businesses will be shut down.
  • Experts say these factors have contributed to the COVID-19 surge in Florida, which they don’t expect will peak for at least another few weeks.

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Florida is the epicenter of a resurgent rise in COVID-19 cases, fueled by the highly infectious Delta variant.

The Sunshine State currently leads the nation by a wide margin in new COVID-19 cases as well as deaths attributed to the disease.

On July 31, Florida reported the most single-day new cases the state has experienced since the pandemic at 21,683 with new confirmed cases up 50 percent in the previous week. The state accounts for one-fifth of all new COVID-19 cases in the United States.

About 22 percent of intensive care unit beds in Florida hospitals are occupied by people with COVID-19, the highest rate in the nation.

“In some ways it’s a simple calculus,” Dr. Stephen Kimmel, chair of the department of epidemiology at the University of Florida’s College of Public Health and Health Professions & School of Medicine, told Healthline. “You have a variant that spreads much more easily, people who are contagious for a longer period of time, people who are vaccinated can probably carry it and spread it to others, and the Delta variant is more dangerous and leading to more hospitalizations.”

Hospital beds in the state are filling up rapidly with people who have serious cases of COVID-19, said Mary Mayhew, president and chief executive officer of the Florida Hospital Association.

“The Delta variant is leading to very sick individuals in hospitals and is ripping through the unvaccinated,” she told Healthline.

Mayhew added that COVID-19 hospitalizations in Florida have surged from about 2,000 to more than 10,000 in the past month. In 2020, it took 2 months for caseloads to make a similar numerical leap.

COVID-19 isn’t only spreading more quickly in Florida — it’s affecting a different population.

In 2020, it was mostly seniors filling hospital beds in Florida, Mayhew said, notably in people who got sick in nursing homes. Now, the average age of COVID-19 patients in some hospitals is in the 40s, not the 60s.

“The vaccination rate among the elderly is quite good, but among younger people there is less vaccination, and we’re seeing more hospitalizations in that population,” said Kimmel.

He said there’s a clear correlation in Florida between vaccination rates at the county level and the transmission of the virus.

“First and foremost, we need to get more people vaccinated. That’s the most important thing,” Kimmel said.

In response, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has accused the media of “hysteria” and fear mongering, saying the current surge in cases isn’t as bad as the one in 2020 because people are younger and presumably less vulnerable.

DeSantis has also tried to shift blame for the COVID-19 surge in his state onto immigrants crossing the U.S. border from Mexico, but Kimmel said data doesn’t support that assertion.

While Florida’s governor has urged state residents to get vaccinated, he has thrown up roadblocks to measures designed to stem the spread of the illness among state residents.

DeSantis has tried to block local communities and schools from mandating the use of face masks as a means to slow the virus transmission, as well as opposing attempts by private businesses to require vaccination as a condition of providing services.

He’s also insisted the state won’t implement a lockdown to combat the Delta variant.

“Clearly, not wearing masks is going to increase the spread [of the disease],” said Kimmel.

He urged Floridians to wear masks in indoor public places and outdoors when mingling with people whose vaccination status is unknown.

Mayhew said that Florida hospitals are still holding their own against the new COVID-19 surge. However, she noted that the new wave of cases likely won’t peak for several more weeks and that hospitals across the state (and the country) are struggling with staffing shortages.

“What’s different this time [compared to 2020] is the combined impact of significant COVID-19 hospitalizations with very sick non-COVID patients,” she said. “Everyone is trying to understand why at this time of year we’re seeing large volumes of non-COVID respiratory illnesses.”

Mayhew said that Florida’s rate of full vaccination — 49 percent of the population — isn’t too far off the national average (50 percent) and predicted that other states, in addition to hot spots such as Florida and Texas, may soon be experiencing similar Delta-driven spikes in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

“I think Florida is at the beginning of the curve and the rest of the country will have similar cases,” she said.

Kimmel added that the epidemiological data is already showing that the surge is “happening all over the country.”

“It’s just the nature of this variant,” he said.