Troubling COVID strain now in the state capital; 25 FL counties now have variant that’s potentially more lethal

Florida Capitol
The Historic Capitol, foreground, and Florida Capitol buildings. Photo, Colin Hackley

The more transmissible COVID-19 mutation is now in the state capital, where lawmakers are attending committee meetings leading up to the March 2 legislative session.

Several lawmakers have already contracted the disease since this summer.

The mutation, called the B.1.1.7 variant that emerged in the United Kingdom, is potentially more lethal than the original virus, and has been spreading.

It is now in at least 33 states — with Florida leading the nation in the number of the new variant cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

As of Thursday, the United Kingdom COVID-19 strain has been detected in 25 counties including Leon County, home of the state capital of Tallahassee, according to an email from the Florida Department of Health. The B.1.1.7. variant had previously emerged in only 19 counties.

It has been difficult to get information about cases of the new, more transmissible strain from the Florida Department of Health. The Florida Phoenix had to use a state law to request public records on the public health crisis that could help inform Floridians.

The department still has not provided at least some information about the gender and age or age ranges about the people who were infected by this particular variant.

Meanwhile, the Florida Senate has established safety protocols for its committee meetings that include providing remote testimony for the public at the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center, to limit the number of people in the Capitol’s committee rooms.

State lawmakers, staff, and members of the media must undergo regular COVID-19 testing.

“The Senate continues to consult with Tampa General (Hospital), as well as our in-house epidemiologist to make sure we are taking all of the appropriate steps to keep the Senate as safe as possible,” Senate spokeswoman Katherine Betta said via email.

“Additional protocols have not been advised at this point. We continued to require testing of anyone (Senators, staff, and media) who is working from the Senate areas of the Capitol, and the Senate remains closed to the public, among other protocols.”

All committee meetings in the Florida House are streamed live on The Florida Channel and public testimony will be held in-person but limited seats are available.

Just last week, Senate Democratic Leader Gary Farmer, who represents part of Broward County, said he had contracted COVID-19.

The Florida Phoenix has been covering COVID-19 infections among members of the Florida Legislature since at least the summer. Those who became ill included State Reps. Randy Fine and Chris Latvala, and Shevrin Jones, who was a state House member at the time and is now in the Florida Senate. Jones was the first state lawmaker to test positive for COVID-19 in early July, documenting his experience with symptoms through Twitter.

In November, some lawmakers missed the Legislature’s organization session because they’d either tested positive for COVID or had been in contact with someone who had. Sen. Ray Rodrigues and Sen. Tom Wright were among those who contracted COVID.

The CDC is also tracking two other new variants — a South Africa stain and a Brazil strain. But thus far, neither of those strains are in Florida. The CDC tracks the variant cases Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. (Thursday cases have not been published yet.)

The most recent CDC data show 187 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant in Florida — more than any other state in the nation. (The cases identified are based on a sampling of specimens and do not represent the total number of B.1.1.7 cases — and the cases of the two other variants — across the nation, according to the CDC.)

Here are the variants in each of the 25 counties. Those in bold are new compared to the original 19 counties that the Phoenix received earlier.

Broward – 47

Dade – 40

Palm Beach – 21

Pinellas – 19

Hillsborough – 19

Seminole – 6

Pasco – 6

Osceola – 5

Lake – 3

Volusia – 2

Hendry – 2

Lee – 2

Leon – 2

Collier – 2

Hernando – 1

Escambia – 1

Brevard – 1

St. Lucie – 1

Sumter – 1

Polk – 1

Martin – 1

Orange – 1

Suwannee – 1

Charlotte – 1

Alachua – 1

The CDC reports that the variants “alter the characteristics and cause the virus to act differently in ways that are significant to public health (e.g., causes more severe disease, spreads more easily between humans, requires different treatments, changes the effectiveness of current vaccines).”

Health officials say people should take measures, such as double masking, to avoid getting the virus. State officials can also pursue measures, such as a statewide mask mandate, though Gov. Ron DeSantis has been against such a requirement.

Cases are expected to continue to climb, as federal health officials earlier warned of the new COVID-19 variant potentially becoming the dominant strain by March.

Florida Phoenix editor Diane Rado contributed to this report