With state officials mum, Floridians aren’t being told about a public health threat: A troubling new COVID strain

Novel coronavirus SARS CoV2, which causes COVID-19. Meanwhile, new COVID mutations called variants are now spreading across the U.S., including the Delta variant. Microphotography by National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

On New Year’s Eve, a more contagious strain of COVID-19 that first appeared in the United Kingdom emerged in Florida, with the state health department tweeting information on Florida’s first case.

That one case – a young man in his 20s in Martin County – has now jumped to 22 cases as of Thursday, the second highest number in the nation. Only California has more cases, 32, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Florida Department of Health’s tweets on New Year’s Eve provided some details about the case in Martin County, north of Palm Beach County. And heath officials and lawmakers held a press conference on Jan. 2 about the Martin County case.

But ever since then, the public has been in the dark, with state officials mum about the troubling new cases that can spread more easily and make more people ill.

As it stands now, Florida has more than 1.5 million COVID-19 infections, and the public doesn’t know if the new strain is exacerbating the situation or if other measures — such as a statewide mask mandate — should be used to battle the new strain.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is shown during a news conference on Jan. 12, 2021. Credit: FL Governor’s Office.

Unlike officials in other states, Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is focused on vaccines, has not publicly mentioned the new cases in Florida. No press conference. No news releases.

Likewise, the Florida Department of Health’s website has not posted any new tweets on its Twitter feed in connection with the new cases.

The department’s website is focused mostly on the vaccines and doesn’t show any information about the new cases, called COVID variants.

While the 22 new cases have been identified by the CDC, Florida officials haven’t provided public information about where those cases are – even by county – and there’s no demographic info available to the public, such as ages and gender. (The CDC’s numbers are based on samples and do not reflect all the new cases circulating in the country.)

State Rep. Nicholas Duran. Credit: FL House of Representatives.

That said, “We are starting to hear a lot of talk and concern surrounding the new strains of COVID showing up in Florida,” said State Rep. Nicholas Duran, who represents part of Miami-Dade County, which has the largest number of COVID-19 infections in the state.

“My hope is the DOH finds it important to share information and help folks understand what is going on and/or how it impacts their current safety considerations they put into practice with their families daily,” Duran said in an email to the Phoenix.

“The agency has its hands full, but information sharing is critical and updates regarding the agencies understanding and thinking on the new strains should be not be ignored,” said Duran, who is a Democratic and the ranking member of the state House’s Health & Human Services Committee.

The CDC data show that the new COVID variant has now emerged in twelve states, including Florida and California. The others are Colorado, Texas, Georgia, Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut and Maryland. A total of 76 U.S. cases have been reported by the CDC, which is leading the efforts to study the new COVID strains.

The Phoenix found that many of the other states have been far more transparent than Florida in providing details about the variant to the public, with announcements, news releases and press conferences.

California health officials reported cases in San Bernardino and San Diego counties, according to a report from KTVU FOX 2, a television station in California.

And that report said California Governor Gavin Newsom had spoken publicly on the issue to “remind the public that this new coronavirus strain is more contagious and more severe.”

The San Bernardino County Department of Public Health said in a press release on Jan. 1 that two cases were identified involving two individuals living in the same household. One of those patients reported having contact with someone who traveled to the UK.

In Texas, an adult male in his 30s in Harris County had been infected with the COVID-19 variant, according to a report from NBC DFW.

According to a press release, state officials in Pennsylvania confirmed its first case on Jan. 7 in Dauphin County, where the “individual tested positive after known international exposure” and experienced mild symptoms.

Last week, Minnesota health officials reported “five residents of four Twin Cities metro area counties” infected with the new coronavirus variant, the Star Tribune reported. Those five cases involve residents aged from 15 to 37, according to the report.

The Phoenix has been asking for information about the details of the variant cases – to provide information to the public. But so far, the state health department hasn’t provided a response.

Jason Mahon, interim communications director of the Florida Department of Health, told the Phoenix in an email that the current vaccine is likely to protect against the new strain, but he didn’t comment on whether the state will release details about the new variant cases.

“The state continues to work closely with the CDC to support sequencing (to identify variant viruses). Through these robust efforts, 22 cases of the UK variant have been detected in Florida,” Mahon said.

“We encourage all Floridians to continue to take mitigation measures to prevent the spread of this virus. It’s important to note that based on studies with other viruses containing similar mutations, experts believe that immunity from vaccination will be effective against this strain.”

Meanwhile, health experts continue to investigate the new COVID variants to better understand how easily they can be transmitted and whether the current vaccines will protect people from the new strains.

So far, no evidence has been found that indicates “this variant strain causes more severe illness or increased risk of death,” said Brian Katzowitz, press officer at the CDC’s COVID-19 Emergency Response.

“New information about this variant and its characteristics is rapidly emerging. CDC will continue to communicate updates as we learn more,” Katzowitz said in an email to the Phoenix.

And health experts in the state are urging more action to monitor the disease that could potentially result in more outbreaks as the new variant spreads across the nation.

Dr. Michael Teng, associate professor of medicine at the University of South Florida, said in a phone conversation that he believes the first Florida man infected “clearly got it through community spread.”

“The people in the UK have done a pretty good job of tracking it…it seems like this variant is about somewhere around 50 percent more transmissible,” he said.

“We don’t know how widespread it is in the United States. We really need to ramp up our surveillance.”

For now, Duran believes Florida residents should continue to adhere to the same safety protocols.

“The most important thing we can do is wear a mask, stay distant, get tested and/or vaccinated,” Duran said. “We can never overstate it and it should be reminded daily by all of our state and community leaders as well as agency heads.”

The CDC describes these types of variants:

“In the United Kingdom (UK), a new variant has emerged with an unusually large number of mutations. This variant seems to spread more easily and quickly than other variants. Currently, there is no evidence that it causes more severe illness or increased risk of death. This variant was first detected in September 2020 and is now highly prevalent in London and southeast England. It has since been detected in numerous countries around the world, including the United States and Canada.”

“In South Africa, another variant has emerged independently of the variant detected in the UK. This variant, originally detected in early October, shares some mutations with the variant detected in the UK. There have been cases caused by this variant outside of South Africa. This variant seems to spread more easily and quickly than other variants. Currently, there is no evidence that it causes more severe illness or increased risk of death.”

“Another variant recently emerged in Nigeria. CDC also is monitoring this strain but, at this time, there is no evidence to indicate this variant is causing more severe illness or increased spread of COVID-19 in Nigeria.”

Phoenix reporter Danielle J. Brown contributed to this report.