ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida remains a major battleground against the coronavirus pandemic: It’s now by far the top state for COVID-19 variant cases.

What You Need To Know

  • CDC data: Florida has double the number of coronavirus variant cases as No. 2 state of Michigan

  • USF professor, epidemiologist says Florida's open-for-business policy and tourism could be factors

  • Variant numbers in Florida are likely underreported; cases rising in younger Orange County adults

  • RELATED: AdventHealth Using Genomic Sequencing to Learn Prevalence of COVID Variants

The state’s openness and tourism could be contributing to that, a University of South Florida epidemiologist says.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday that the Sunshine State carried a combined 2,422 cases of three COVID-19 variants, out of 13,052 variant cases reported in the U.S.

That's double Michigan's second-most number of U.S. cases at 1,242. California, the most populous state, had 865.

A report this week from the National Institutes of Health called the B.1.1.7 variant “considerably more contagious than the original virus” and said “emerging evidence indicates that infection with this B.1.1.7 variant also comes with an increased risk of severe illness and death.”

Dr. Jason L. Salemi, an epidemiologist and associate professor at USF’s College of Public Health, noted this week that Florida claimed about 20% of U.S. cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first identified in the U.K.

He cited tourism as a possible reason Florida holds such a high percentage of variants, which include, to far lesser extents, the P.1 variant first detected in Brazil and the B.1.351 variant initially identified in South Africa.

“And it's certainly been quite a while since we've been locked down in any way from any sort of tourists coming in,” Salemi told Spectrum News on Wednesday, referring to a continued open-for-business policy from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

People continue to arrive in Central Florida’s theme parks and other statewide tourist destinations from all over the country, which means that “if the variant emerges elsewhere, they are more likely to bring it into the state,” Salemi said.

Variant Numbers Likely Underreported

Salemi said he knows of no county-by-county data that focuses on coronavirus variants, and Spectrum News has been unsuccessful in attempts to get such data from various Central Florida and Tampa Bay counties.

The Florida Department of Health didn’t respond to a Wednesday request for such data.

In Orange County, health officials provide twice-per-week updates on the county's number of variant cases, which continues to grow. Dr. Raul Pino, director of the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, on Thursday reported 105 variant cases, up from 80 cases in the county on Monday.

Ninety-three of those cases feature the B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the U.K., and two the P.1 variant first detected in Brazil. Ten cases show variants that originated in California, which didn’t appear in the Thursday CDC report.

Pino maintained Thursday that the number of county variant cases likely exceeds 105. That’s due in part to asymptomatic cases and those that go unreported, he said.

Yet “the numbers are less significant” than “the presence” of the variants, he said. “We should be very careful about this.”

Pino has emphasized a rise in overall COVID-19 cases among younger county residents.

Salemi, the USF epidemiologist, echoed that concern this week, pointing to an increase over the past two weeks in overall cases among 18- to 49-year-olds in the state’s largest counties and metropolitan areas, particularly in Orange County. He said he suspects Orange County features “a lot of working-age folks who are repeatedly getting tested for their jobs.”

Rollins College students Connor Jones and Benny Binder exemplify the divide among younger people. 

“The quicker we can all get vaccinated, the quicker things can get back to normal,” Jones said.

“I don’t want the vaccine, because I don’t think that COVID is that big a deal,” Binder said.

Studies show young people are among the most skeptical when it comes to the vaccine, taking a wait and see approach. 

Doctors, however, point out that getting people vaccinated is the best chance at stemming the spread and growth of variants.

Spring Break Travel Raises Concerns

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said Thursday that Orlando International Airport officials expect air-passenger travel to increase significantly for the coming Easter weekend compared with last year.

“That’s indeed good news,” Demings said during a county coronavirus news briefing. “But, of course, when people are coming in, they bring other things with them... and Dr. Pino and the (county) epidemiologist talk often about the number of variants and other things that potentially can come in.”

And go out. Salemi expressed caution about spring-break visitors who might show no symptoms, then “take these variant strains elsewhere in the United States.”

He emphasized the need to maintain basic safety protocols including mask-wearing and social distancing, even as coronavirus cases flatten from their winter peak, as more people get vaccinated, and as the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines reach younger age groups.

The fewer the cases, he says, the less chance of mutations that he says could result in variants “more problematic than the ones we have now.”

“It's a very natural thing for viruses to do: mutate,” Salemi said. “Obviously, our biggest fear is that a strain emerges that is either more lethal, more virulent or better at evading vaccine. I think there's always going to be continued information coming out, but most of the information suggests that the big problem with these variants is they're just more transmissible.”

In simple terms, he said, the variants include modifications that strengthen their ability to attach to a body’s cell receptors and to replicate. That makes them “more sticky, so to speak,” Salemi said.

Variants Remain Under Close Scrutiny

A prevailing question remains whether the vaccines maintain effectiveness against COVID-19 variants. CNN reported Thursday that the Pfizer vaccine appears fully effective against the closely watched B.1.351 variant, the dominant strain in South Africa, according to ongoing Phase 3 clinical trial. The vaccine also remains highly effective overall for at least six months after the second dose, the report said.

“It does seem like our vaccines remain very effective against these variants, at least in terms of preventing severe illness and death,” Salemi said.

Dr. Wes Walker, director of AdventHealth’s genomics program, said Thursday that his department is analyzing variants in Central Florida through a laboratory method called genomic sequencing. Officials will share any “valuable” information “as soon as we get it,” he said.

“Viruses are always mutating, and certain variants develop that may or may not spread more quickly,” Walker said during an AdventHealth conversation on Facebook Live. “So... it’s very important that we understand which variants are in our community and respond accordingly.”