Florida’s latest coronavirus wave is its worst yet.

By Adeel Hassan

As the highly contagious delta variant of the virus rips through the unvaccinated population in the U.S., Florida is seeing its highest number of cases and hospitalizations since the start of the pandemic.

But the state is still about one month away from its peak, according to a public health researcher who had been tracking the virus’ reach there.

“Short term and long term, the cases are going to explode,” Edwin Michael, a professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida, in Tampa, said in an interview on Monday. “We are predicting that the cases will be peaking the first week of September. There will be 68,000 new cases, four times the number of cases in January.”

Michael models predictions of the coronavirus statewide and in each Florida county, and his team’s work is used by officials and hospitals to support plans and responses to the pandemic.

“Our simulations show that if we don’t slow the hospitalizations, if we don’t prevent the wave of coming infections,” he said, “we might exceed Florida’s bed capacity in early September.”

In the past week, hospitals around the state are reporting an average of 1,525 adult hospitalizations and 35 pediatric hospitalizations a day. There are 10,593 people hospitalized with confirmed coronavirus cases in Florida as of July 31, according to a New York Times database. The previous high was set on July 22, 2020, with 12,282.

“We need a two-pronged approach,” Michael said. “Get as many people vaccinated as possible, especially the pediatric population, but to prevent the coming waves, we need to couple it with social-distancing measures and face-mask mandates.”

He lamented that it was too late for vaccinations — which take five weeks from the first dose to protection — to prevent the coming peak, and he insisted that the only way to have a quick effect on the Labor Day wave was to have the extra protective measures.

“The next four weeks are going to be so crucial,” he said. “Schools and universities are reopening in Florida. This is going to be a dangerous period coming.”

Vaccination rates have plunged since April. That, coupled with a collapse in people taking precautions, allowed delta to flourish. “Barely 5% are practicing social measures,” he said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has opposed mandatory mask mandates and vaccine requirements and has restricted local officials’ ability to put steps in place that, scientists say, would stem the rising tide of coronavirus cases.

On Friday, DeSantis barred school districts from requiring students to wear masks when classes begin next week, leaving it to parents to decide for themselves whether their children wear masks in school.

“In Florida, there will be no lockdowns,” DeSantis said. “There will be no school closures. There will be no restrictions and no mandates.”

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