As Florida reopens the risk of a fiercer virus is latent
The speed with which the variants of the coronavirus are spreading over Florida at an alarming rate, paints an encouraging scenario for a return to absolute normality, and as the state government dedicates itself to relaxing precautions, the road to an end of the pandemic seems far away.
Starting April 5, Florida residents will be eligible to receive any COVID-19 vaccine as prescribed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In May, all people can be inoculated regardless of age, allowing the more than 20 million inhabitants of the state to be protected, although experts warn that this will not be enough to contain the virus.
About 6.2 million state residents have been vaccinated as of April 2, and nationwide some 162 million Americans already have at least one dose administered, representing nearly half of the United States population.
In the last three months, the cases of Covid-19 with the highly contagious variant B.1.1.7 that affected the United Kingdom increased tenfold in Florida, going from about 232 in mid-February to 2,351 until Friday, February 3. April, ranked the state in the first place in the nation for infections with this type of strain, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analyzed by the ITEMP Project.
“While investigations are still ongoing, variant B.1.17 may have been introduced in Florida earlier than other parts of the country as a result of travel. Florida is also a national leader in genetic sequencing, which is how I would identify the variant, “admitted a spokesman for the state Department of Health in response to a query.
The natural privilege of Florida with its large cities surrounded by beaches and covered with sun all year round can be, at the same time, the worst threat to its residents who in recent weeks have seen how the crowds of local and foreign travelers are returning without precautions. and forgetting the current situation.
Public data and inquiries made by the ITEMP Project show that increased visitor flows, while helping to revive the local economy, can also lead to serious public health problems.
The rebound in cases in the last weeks of March could be a sign.
However, in the street there is a sense of victory and tranquility in view of the arrival of the vaccine, hospitalizations are decreasing as well as deaths from the pandemic.
The CDC map with figures on the three most contagious variants, B.1.1.7 (British), B.1.351 (South African) and P.1 (Brazilian) revealed that as of Saturday, April 3, Florida had about 2,400 cases of coronaviruses derived by the new strains. Variant B.1.1.7 is the one with the greatest spread with 2,351 infections.
Michigan is the second state in the nation with the most positive variants detected.
Florida has seen a spike in Covid-19 cases in the last week of March, when the trend was down at the beginning of the month. On March 31 alone there were 6,873 positive cases for a total of 2,077,032 diagnoses as of April 2.
“Overall, of all the states in the country, Florida is the fifth most visited by international travelers, but at the same time it is the only state in the top of those five without a mask mandate,” said Aileen Marty, professor of infectious diseases at Florida International University (FIU).
Travel data reveals that the top “countries of origin” (where people come from) traveling to Florida in 2019, according to preliminary figures, were Canada (3.6 million), the United Kingdom (1.5 million), Brazil (1.2 million) and Colombia. (610,000). While the numbers dropped during 2020, the percentage stayed the same, explained Professor Marty.
“Variant B.1.1.7 has significantly increased transmission and no mask mandate greatly facilitates its spread,” warned the professor, the specialist, who has more than 40 years of clinical and research work in the fields of infectious diseases and health. public.
Some variants of the coronavirus discovered in the past year may partially evade antibodies generated in response to vaccination and previous infection, raising fears that vaccines will be less effective against the variants than against the original strain of the virus, the scientists found. according to research published in the journal Nature in March.
First detected in the UK, B.1.1.7 is now the dominant strain there and is spreading widely across Europe and much of the US with Florida in the eye of the hurricane.
Without control measures and vaccines, the “British variant” could cause a more deadly pandemic than previously circulating versions of the virus, the researchers admitted.
A study published in London last March revealed that people infected with the B.1.1.7 variant have a higher risk of dying than people with other circulating strains, regardless of their age, gender and pre-existing health problems.
For Florida, with cities like Miami and Orlando that receive millions of domestic and foreign tourists, the reactivation of air, boat and road travel as the national vaccination plan advances, is a hope for its economy as long as the protocols of use of masks and distancing continue to be observed, experts say.
The Sunshine State was the main port of entry to the United States for foreign visitors in 2020, displacing New York for the first time in a decade, according to data from the National Travel and Tourism Office (NTTO).
Between January and February 2021, 252 thousand foreigners arrived at the terminals of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, the main ones in Florida, a reflection that the travel industry is timidly reactivating, but it can bring with it serious problems such as those seen in Miami Beach in the sprint break holiday season, with thousands of young people crowded and without masks.
While the federal government requires that all air passengers arriving in the United States, including Americans, must have a negative Covid-19 test or documentation of recovery from the disease before returning, scientists continue to attribute the spread of the variants to the trips no longer only between countries, but between states of the union.
“The travel restrictions have not generally worked. Not only is the virus too fast for us, but all restrictions have holes in travel and the transport of essential goods in the global economy, “admitted a prominent immunology researcher who asked not to reveal his name for this story.
In January, 374,345 passengers arrived at Miami airport, including US citizens, 20,000 more than in December 2020, according to the NTTO.
In February, that terminal became the first gateway for foreign visitors from all over the country, the data shows, which shows that, although a greater flow of tourists is a source of economic activity, it is also a source of variants of the virus without the precautions and controls they decrease.
Clinical studies showed that 12,500 cases with the B.1.1.7 variant were present in the country for a total of 13,000 reports with the B.1.351 and P1 strains added.
The cases identified by the CDC are based solely on a sampling of positive tests for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) and do not represent the total number of lineage cases that may be circulating nationwide in this moment.
In the case of Florida, “the key to controlling all of this is a much greater acceptance of the vaccine than has been evident in the Hispanic community so far and, more importantly, encouraging the community to redouble its measures of common sense that control the spread, “said the researcher.
“Masks, hand washing, hand sanitizer and social distancing – the idea that you can love someone both from a distance of 6 feet and in closer proximity,” he added.
For the P.1 variant discovered in Brazil and hitting the city of Manaus (north) with force since the beginning of years, CDC researchers found few cases within the United States in consideration of the South African or British variants, in part because the flow of travelers from Brazil to the US has fallen by 93% compared to 2020.
Brazil has been one of the countries most affected by the pandemic in the last three months with some 12.9 million cases until the beginning of April. It has the second highest death toll in the world, only surpassed by the United States, and as the virus spreads, scientists detect that its own strain (P.1) has a higher contagion power that does not allow a glimpse of an end to the short-term crisis.
Some 9,300 Brazilians visited the country between January and February, according to NTTO records, and from January to March there were 1,131 commercial and cargo flights between the two nations, flight analyzes from FlightAware aviation software provided to ITEMP show.
The number of visitors from Brazil as a residential country represents a fall of 97% compared to 2020, when 350,900 visitors from that area arrived in the same period.
No changes in sight
For the State Department, the travel advisory for Brazil is currently at a “Level 4” that recommends that its citizens avoid traveling to that region or follow the CDC protocols if they have been there. However, the federal government has avoided completely suspending flights between the two countries.
“We would not speculate on future actions related to travel to the United States,” admitted a State Department spokesperson who was asked about a possible closure of flights with Brazil.
“The geographic Presidential Proclamation restricting travel due to Covid-19 remains in effect and continues to apply to potential travelers, regardless of their test results or vaccination status.”
In Brazil, two lineages have been reported almost simultaneously in the states of Amazonas (P.1) and Rio de Janeiro (P.2), which share mutations with strains B.1.1.7 and B.1.1.351 associated with transmissibility growing number of COVID-19 in that South American country, according to a study published in March in the scientific journal Nature.
By modeling the spread of P.1 and its possible effects during the second wave in the Brazilian city of Manaus, the researchers estimated that the variant was up to two times more transmissible than other lineages and that it was capable of evading part of the immunity conferred. from previous infections.
With Florida as the main pole of Brazilian migration in the United States and the first tourist and investment destination for this community, the public health crisis that Brazil is experiencing is also an object of concern due to its eventual impact as travel exchanges resume. .
For the Florida Department of Health, the key to the new variants will be vaccination.
“The Department recommends getting vaccinated and following the same mitigation measures used to limit exposure to COVID, which are also effective against the variants,” said a spokesman for this state entity in an email.
Aileen Marty, a professor at Florida International University (FIU), suggests that the next big step for Florida authorities will be to expand the vaccination process among its residents, but with a key emphasis on one of its most vulnerable industries, The tourism.
“As soon as Pfizer / BioNtech or Moderna obtain the full license from the FIU (not just an Emergency Use Authorization), vaccinations are required in schools and workplaces. You have to ensure that the hospitality industry, in particular, is well vaccinated, as people in this chain are more likely to find new imported variants that can add to our community’s problems, ”he suggested.
For this specialist, the most important thing will be “to strongly encourage the use of masks, hygiene and physical distancing. You have to follow science ”.
So far the two-shot Pfizer vaccine is very effective in preventing severe Covid-19, according to an analysis of more than a million people in Israel. But the study also covered a period when the emerging variant B.1.1.7 was widely circulating in that Middle Eastern country, suggesting that the injection is effective in preventing the virus caused by that virus.
At the doors of a boutique hotel in Miami Beach, several guests are waiting for their suitcases while others enter and leave, chatting, taking photos, laughing, while thousands of particles of saliva are dispersed because none of them, beyond the employees of the establishment, they wear mask masks, a common sight these days in a city full of visitors for the Easter holidays.
“The better we work now to suppress the coronavirus, the lower the risk of persistent problems and new diseases or diseases in this way in the future,” said Professor Marty.