New details emerge on new COVID strain in FL: ‘We may have cases out there that we don’t know about’

State Sen. Gayle Harrell and other county, health and state officials discuss new COVID strain and vaccines. Credit: Screenshot, WPTV.

Florida state health officials and lawmakers on Saturday provided new details  about how the new COVID-19 strain was discovered on New Year’s Eve in Martin County, on Florida’s east coast north of Palm Beach County.

The case involves a Martin County man, age 23, whose COVID infection emerged as part of a random sample surveillance program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), according to Martin County health officer Carol Ann Vitani.

She said at the afternoon news conference that Florida thus far has not been notified of any other case of this kind in the state.

The young man tested positive for the new COVID strain and was in isolation and “very cooperative,” Vitani said. He’s now out of isolation and doing extremely well.

The Martin man had not traveled out of the state or the country, Vitani said.

The strain has been rapidly spreading around the United Kingdom, other countries and now the United States — at least in Colorado, California and now Florida. The new strain is of concern because it’s more transmissible, meaning the number of COVID cases would expect to rise quickly.

The CDC and the state of Florida will continue to identify any new sample cases.

“We may have cases out there that we don’t know about,” said State Sen. Gayle Harrell, who joined several other state and county officials at the Saturday news conference in Martin County. Harrell represents Martin, St. Lucie counties and part of Palm Beach County. In the 2018-20 legislative session, Harrell was chair of the Senate Health Policy committee.

Officials at the news conference said newly approved vaccines would work well against the new COVID strain.

Gov. Ron DeSantis so far has not made any public comments at any news conferences related to the new strain.

The group at the news conference also focused on the vaccine distribution, with officials anxious to get the shots for people on waitlists.

As of Saturday, the Florida Department of Health reported 243,107 vaccines administered. Of the total, 66,835 were given to Floridians age 65 and over — a push by the DeSantis administration.

However, about 4.5-million people aged 65 and older live in Florida, and with a limited vaccine supply right now, it’s not clear when all of those people will be vaccinated, let alone people younger than 65.

Meanwhile, the state health department on Saturday reported COVID-19 infections at 1,354,833, and 21,890 deaths of Florida residents.

While those specific numbers are large for Florida, the state’s infection and death rates — per 100,000 people — are lower than many other states across the country, according to a New York Times analysis.

Diane Rado
Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.