As officials rush to get COVID-19 vaccines to Florida’s senior citizens, the stakes are rising, with about four times as many state residents succumbing to the disease every day, on average, compared to early November.
On Nov. 5, the seven-day average for daily reported COVID deaths in Florida was 42, according to analysis by Jason Salemi, a biostatistician at the University of South Florida. But since that low point — which came after Florida’s summer surge and shortly after schools reopened — classes have continued, colder weather has arrived and countless Floridians gathered for the holidays.
This week, the seven-day average of daily reported COVID deaths reached 176, a four-fold increase from 2 1/2 months ago, and a big jump from even two weeks ago, at the beginning of January, when the average was about 110 deaths reported per day. The rise in deaths followed the usual path: months of increases in cases, a corresponding rise in hospital admissions and then deaths.
The increase in mortality could still get worse, warned Salemi, who closely follows Florida’s COVID data.
“If you look at the hospitalization trends, you’d expect it to rise even more,” he said.
COVID deaths are difficult to track because the state adds them to the total number when they receive the information, not when the death occurred. So with hospitalizations up during the last few weeks, more deaths are likely to follow.
But there may be an improvement coming. Over the last week, Florida’s hospitalizations appear to have begun leveling off after reaching a peak of about 7,600 on Jan. 15, according to state data.
Though that may be temporary, Salemi hoped the slowdown represents the beginning of a downturn in COVID patients, which would mean fewer deaths after the next couple of weeks, as data catches up to the lag in reporting.
And even with the rising numbers of deaths, Florida remains short of its all-time peak in late July, when about 9,200 people were being treated for COVID in state hospitals. The state’s COVID numbers may not be as bad as they were in July, but other states, primarily Northern and Midwestern states, along with California, have in the last month far surpassed their previous peaks.
The number of deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. surpassed 400,000 this week — about 24,500 of them in Florida.
How much worse will it get?
With the state’s reporting of deaths still catching up to the latest surge in hospital admissions, the mortality rate for infections that began in late December and early January is expected to continue to rise.
People who die from COVID usually succumb about a month after infection. But there is generally a lag in reporting the deaths. Over the summer, those delays in reporting stretched to almost five weeks in Florida, though they are now closer to two weeks or less.
“What we’re seeing in terms of deaths in Florida is a reflection of what we saw in terms of infections several weeks ago,” said Eric Toner, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “And what we know is that several weeks ago, there was a very steep rise in the number of cases.”
One potential glimmer of hope is that improvements in treatment may help save more lives than the summer for those who wind up in an intensive care unit, meaning that deaths this month may not track cases and hospitalizations from last month as closely.
Salemi said he is holding out hope that improvements in hospital treatments for COVID might mean that there are fewer deaths, despite more hospitalizations.
Toner, of Johns Hopkins, said that hope of substantially reducing the deaths with better treatments is probably “premature” but he added that it’s not unrealistic to expect that it could help to a certain degree.
“If hospital mortality rate is the same that it was in the summer then we can expect several more weeks, maybe a month or more, of pretty steeply rising deaths,” Toner said. “If the mortality rates are significantly less, which we think they may well be, it may not get much worse than what it is now.”
The grim reality will likely reveal itself in the next week or two, Toner said. “We just have to wait a week or two, and see what the numbers do.”