Last year, not many people knew much about the coronavirus, let alone that it would mutate. But by now, variants of the virus causing COVID-19 are sweeping across the nation, with Florida in the worst spot of all.
All three variants — Brazil, South Africa and United Kingdom strains — are circulating in communities across the state. Florida is an anomaly, and health officials are racing for time to vaccinate residents as soon as possible before the variants spread further.
So far, only one other state, Maryland, has the three variants, but Florida has hundreds more cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has been tracking the variants.
The variants are proliferating globally and could wreak havoc on the health care system in the United States, according to federal health officials. That’s because the COVID variants spread more easily than the original coronavirus and may trigger a surge in cases of COVID-19.
“An increase in the number of cases will put more strain on health care resources, lead to more hospitalizations, and potentially more deaths,” the CDC said.
Also of concern is whether current vaccines will work against all, some or none of the variants.
The United Kingdom variant is called B.1.1.7; the South Africa, B.1.351 and Brazil, P.1.
Florida continues to lead the nation in cases of the United Kingdom variant, with 599, according to the most recent CDC data.
Keep in mind that the CDC cases are based on a sampling of specimens and do not represent the total number of variant cases that may be circulating in the United States.
In Florida, the state Department of Health released information Tuesday to the Phoenix, under public records laws, showing each of the Florida counties that have the variants.
The United Kingdom variant is now in 38 out of Florida’s 67 counties, with Broward County recording the most cases, 200; followed by Miami-Dade County, with 77.
Palm Beach County has 61 cases, while Hillsborough County has 44, Pinellas, 35 and Pasco, 27.
As to the South Africa variant, the CDC reported one case of the South Africa variant in Florida. That was found in Hillsborough County, according to the Florida Department of Health.
“We continue to remind everyone to do their part to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Please continue to follow CDC guidance,” said Kevin Watler, a spokesman for the Hillsborough County health department.
The South Africa variant known as B.1.351, is concerning because “clinical trials of vaccines are showing that they offer less protection against B.1.351 than other variants, according to the The New York Times.
The Brazil P.1 variant was first identified in travelers from Brazil in early January, the CDC said. And that variant was first identified in the United States at the end of January.
Scientists are concerned about the Brazil variant’s ability to cause reinfections after the P.1 strain devastated people in Manaus, Brazil, the New York Times reported.
According to a new study, not only did the COVID strain cause an increase in outbreaks in Brazil, “but it also gained the ability to infect some people who had immunity from previous bouts of COVID-19.”
The New York Times reported:
“The new studies have yet to be published in scientific journals. Their authors caution that findings on cells in laboratories do not always translate to the real world, and they’ve only begun to understand P.1’s behavior.”
Florida has the most Brazil (P.1) variant cases in the country, with five cases, according to the CDC. The Florida health department identified the Brazil variant in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, and Broward counties.
The Brazil variant has been detected in four other states including Alaska, Maryland, Minnesota and Oklahoma, according to the CDC.
A Maryland Department of Health official said in an email to the Phoenix that all three variants have been detected in the state.
“We continue to work with our local hospital labs and the CDC in learning more about these variants and the impact current vaccinations have in reducing the spread of the viruses,” said Charles Gischlar, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health.
On Feb. 17, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced that state health officials confirmed its first case of the Brazil variant connected to international travel. That case involved a person older than 65 who eventually succumbed to the disease, according to a press release.
The variant case was confirmed by the Maryland Department of Health and the CDC.
“State public health officials are closely monitoring the P.1 variant, and we mourn the loss of this Marylander to COVID-19,” Hogan said in a written statement.
“As we continue to test for these variants, we strongly encourage Marylanders to continue taking precautions to keep themselves and their loved ones safe, including mask wearing, regular hand washing, and physical distancing.”
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has opposed issuing a statewide mask mandate and any further lockdowns, even as federal officials warned of the United Kingdom variant potentially becoming the predominant strain by March.
Here are the counties in Florida with the COVID-19 variants, according to public records provided to the Phoenix from from the Florida Department of Health:
P.1. variant (Brazil): Miami-Dade, 2 cases; Palm Beach, 2; Broward, 1.
B1.351 variant: (South Africa): Hillsborough, 1 case.
B.1.1.7 variant: (United Kingdom). 599 cases.
This story has been updated to include comments from the Hillsborough County Health Department and the Maryland Department of Health.