On the rare occasion I go out in public these days — to get groceries or pick up a prescription, for example — I am generally one of only a few people wearing a mask. The non-mask wearing people either pointedly ignore me or stare at me like I have something on my face (ba-dum tss!), and the few other mask wearers give me that relieved head nod of solidarity. Ah, another person who gives a fuck about public health and knows how to read a peer-reviewed scientific study. Thank the gods I’m not the only one.
But these interactions are infrequent because almost no one wears a mask. People here in Florida gather as usual, attending crowded events and throwing parties even as hospitals set up tents outside to accommodate emergency overflow. Even as Advent, one of the biggest hospital systems in Central Florida, announces “code black” — meaning, due to the surge in hospitalized COVID-19 patients, they will be postponing all elective procedures. Even as hospital after hospital announces that it is doing the same.
My local school board held a meeting last week that drew a huge crowd of anti-maskers. The crowd became so rowdy that the board needed a recess, for which they had to be escorted out of the meeting room by police officers. When they returned, members of the public, one by one, stepped up to the mic to demand the school board not mandate masks. Claims ranged from COVID-19 being a hoax to the masking of children being child abuse. One woman wearing a cap with an American flag on it and who does not have children in the local school system attempted to quote the Constitution, which she claimed to understand better than the school board, and then accidentally quoted the Declaration of Independence.
This is Florida.
A New Covid Variant: B.1.621
So it’s no surprise that Florida is where a new strain of the COVID-19 virus is starting to take hold. Discovered in Colombia, the new variant has been popping up in South Florida with increasing regularity. WPLG in Miami spoke with Carlos Migoya, CEO of Jackson Health System, who confirmed that this new variant has accounted for roughly 10% of incoming coronavirus patients.
Delta remains the dominant variant and continues to fill hospitals, but this new one, as yet unnamed with a Greek letter (currently dubbed B.1.621), is cause for concern. Every time there’s a mutation of the COVID-19 virus, we run the risk of vaccines not being as effective. It’s so important to get as many people vaccinated as possible, as quickly as possible, to protect people from serious infection and death, and to keep our hospitals in a position to be able to serve those who require medical assistance.
This new Covid variant was first detected in January and has reached the United Kingdom, with all cases linked to international travel, which is not surprising. On a positive note, the UK stated last week that this new variant out of Colombia does not appear to cause more severe disease, nor does it seem more resistant to existing vaccines. However, further testing and monitoring will be necessary. The European Center for Disease Control and Prevention has designated the new variant as “of interest” while also stipulating that more data is needed.
Concentrated Almost Entirely In Florida
Here in the U.S., the new Covid variant accounts for just over 2.1% of total coronavirus cases in the U.S. as of July 17, according to professor John Sellick from the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo. Still, remember that in South Florida, where it’s concentrated, the new B.1.621 variant accounts for about 10% of cases.
“The only time it becomes important is if it gives virus selective advantage, which we’ve seen with delta variant,” Sellick told the Washington Post. “What we have to see is two weeks from now, or four weeks from now, is this going to do another trick and wind up being more?” He pointed out that the delta variant had gone from accounting for around 10% of cases at the beginning of June to over 80% of cases by mid-July.
In other words, that number — that 10% we’ve already reached in South Florida — that is concerning. 10% means it’s taking hold. 10% is where Delta started.
The Importance Of Vaccination And Other Social Mitigation Measures
Preeti N. Malani, chief health officer and a professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Michigan, reminded the Washington Post that variants can spread quickly, especially among the unvaccinated, and especially among travelers gathering together in large groups. They take the virus back to their point of origin and start new outbreaks. “If you have a lot of unvaccinated people gathering and then they’re going back home, you could have very rapid transmission in few weeks,” Malani told the Washington Post.
For now, perhaps even more concerning than this new variant here in Florida is the fact that so many people in Florida seem utterly unbothered by how many people are getting sick and dying. Anti-vaxxers and COVID-deniers quote survival rates and neglect to consider the long-term impacts of severe COVID-19 infection — lung, heart, and brain damage, and who knows what else. People don’t simply recover from this the way they do a bad cold. And it’s terrifying that so many of my fellow Floridians refuse to acknowledge this. They appear to genuinely believe that wearing a mask or getting a vaccine is far more harmful or deadly than contracting COVID-19 itself.
I’m worried about these new variants. But I’m even more worried about the ongoing willful ignorance of the people in this country, and in Florida in particular.