USA TODAY | By Jayme Fraser and Mike Stucka, August 10, 2021
Most Florida children are returning to school in areas where COVID-19 outbreaks are far more intense than they were when school started last year.
In most counties, cases are at least four times higher than a year ago, a USA TODAY Network analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows. Five counties report a more than tenfold increase.
Cases among children are surging, too, raising questions about the health consequences of students returning to campuses and a state ban on school mask mandates while vaccines are available for only some of the schoolchildren.
Public health experts and pediatricians said last fall that the most important factor to consider when deciding whether to start classes in-person was the amount of viral spread in the community at large. With cases so much higher than last year, districts are going against those recommendations by welcoming students to campus and limiting online learning options. Those moves follow instructions from the state government, which also prohibited schools from requiring masks for all children.
Over the seven days before last Friday’s state report, Florida saw 13,596 cases among children under 12, and 13,858 cases among ages 12 to 19.
COVID in Florida this year compared to 2020
In the corresponding report a year ago, Florida reported 2,396 cases under age 12 and 3,596 cases among ages 12 to 19.
In five counties – Indian River, Liberty, Sarasota, St. Johns and Pasco – new weekly case counts are more than 10 times higher than they were before the start of the last school year.
In 31 counties, nearly half of Florida’s counties, new case counts were at least five times higher than they’d been before those counties started school in 2020.
Cases fell in just six counties: Baker, Calhoun, Dixie, Lafayette, Taylor and Union. The state’s other 61 counties saw increases of at least 11.7%.
As the number of cases in young people has spiked, so too has the number of kids requiring hospitalization for COVID-19.
Young people’s share of the total coronavirus caseload in Florida has increased somewhat more than in the rest of the population, for whom infection has soared as well.
In early August 2020, as most Florida schools offered robust online learning options, the state reported an average of 11 pediatric admissions a day. In the first week of August this year, the state averaged 49 new pediatric admissions a day.
The Coronavirus in Kids Tracking And Education Project says Florida has the nation’s highest rate of new coronavirus cases among young people, though the age groups don’t match some other states’.
The Pfizer vaccine has been approved for emergency use among kids as young as 12. Vaccinations not only reduce the chance of becoming ill with COVID-19 and reduce the spread of the virus in the overall community but drastically reduce the severity of sickness and the likelihood for hospitalization or death if someone is infected.
Through the end of June, the CDC reports 65 deaths among people under age 19 in Florida, which is a higher mortality rate among youth than all but five other states and 55% higher than the national rate, according to the Coronavirus in Kids project.
The CDC says children may transmit the coronavirus as much as adults, although children’s cases tend to be milder. Multiple prevention measures in schools including masking, ventilation and distancing can help reduce the dangers, the CDC said.
Snall hospitals, such as the 10-bed Calhoun Liberty Hospital in north Florida, bear an extraordinary burden. Paige Tolley, chief nursing officer at Calhoun Liberty Hospital, recalls her experiences with patients admitted to the hospital after falling ill with COVID-19 . Fewer than 25 percent are vaccinated, and Tolley says she understands their hesistance. Alicia Devine/USA TODAY Network