MIAMI — University of Florida researchers are projecting the highly contagious omicron variant will lead to about 40,000 new COVID-19 cases a day in Florida by its February apex, around 75% higher than what the state witnessed during the peak of the delta variant.
But the new COVID-19 wave will be less lethal for Floridians than delta, according to the University of Florida model published Friday.
The report, produced by three UF researchers at the Emerging Pathogens Institute at UF, projects four different scenarios about how the COVID-19 situation may play out in Florida considering transmission, the ability for the virus to evade natural or vaccine immunity, and the severity of the disease.
“We may see an awful lot of infection,” said Glenn Morris, the director of the institute and professor of medicine specializing in infectious diseases. “What contributes to that is that it is highly contagious and you really need to have a strong immune response to avoid getting infected.”
The institute has been working on models for Florida since the beginning of the pandemic; two weeks ago, the team decided they needed new models factoring in omicron.
Given what is known about the omicron variant, and the data that were available when they started producing the models, the experts concluded that the most likely outcome would be more cases and fewer deaths. Other possible scenarios noted in the report: lower transmissibility and low severity, lower transmissibility and moderate severity, and high transmissibility and moderate severity.
The one constant among the four scenarios is that omicron will slowly grow through December 2021, rapidly in January and peak in February 2022.
Florida, like other parts of the country and in countries around the world, has seen its COVID-19 cases spike in recent days. Florida reported 8,785 new COVID-19 cases and one new death on Thursday, the highest single-day report since 10,073 on Sept. 22, at the tail end of the delta variant. The surge in cases has caused the three-day average of cases to jump to 6,431, a 164% increase from the three-day average a week before.
Even though vaccine boosters lower the risk of transmission and severity, researchers noted that because “relatively few Floridians have received booster doses at this point” they did not consider boosters in their analysis.
So far, almost 3.38 Floridians have received booster shots, according to Florida Department of Health data.
Morris noted that researchers are constantly monitoring this and other factors, and projections will be updated.
“It simply reflects where things were when they were assembling this model (two weeks ago) and expresses concern about the need to aggressively push boosting within the population,” said Morris.
According to the most likely model, cases will peak at around 40,000 per day in February — a 74% increase from the worst peak the state has seen thus far. During the delta wave, cases peaked in August when the state was adding, on average, about 23,000 cases a day.
“This in an incredibly contagious variant that transmits very rapidly and quickly through the population,” said Morris, adding that individuals need to have a very strong immune response to avoid getting infected.
“That’s the reason we’re pushing so hard to get Floridians boostered, particularly in our elderly population.”
The model considers seasonality to an extent, but Ira Longini, a biostatistician at UF who was one of the researchers on the models, said that the model does not explicitly factor in gatherings over the holiday season.
“That would probably make things a bit worse,” he said.
Although the omicron variant has only been identified in six positive cases in Miami-Dade so far, experts say that the sharp increase in cases around the state and uptick in hospitalizations suggest the omicron variant is likely spreading.
“I would anticipate increasing cases, test positivity, and prevalence of the omicron lineages in the coming weeks,” said Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of South Florida.
Deaths, however, are not projected to reach the levels they did during the delta wave. In September, when deaths peaked in Florida because of the delta variant, around 403 Floridians, on average, were dying each day.
The models predict that anywhere from 100-250 Floridians might be dying each day during the omicron wave, though that largely depends on the severity of omicron, which is not yet fully known. Public health experts say there’s still not enough data to know for sure and the models could change.
“That’s the question that is still open,” said Morris. “Our sense is we don’t have enough data yet to accurately project that at this point in time.”