Florida’s coronavirus infection numbers and daily hospitalization numbers are moving in opposite directions. Fewer people are going to the hospital despite more confirmed cases, but it’s not clear why. Over the past month, with fewer restrictions on movement and commerce, and a massive increase in coronavirus testing around the state, the number of daily new infections has gone up considerably, while patients with serious symptoms are getting harder to find.
Some health experts suggest the virus may be mutating into a weaker strain, something akin to the common cold. But it’s too early to say for sure.
In the first week of June, the state conducted 195,000 tests, averaging over 30,000 tests per day. That’s an increase of 50% over the month of May, when the state averaged about 20,000 tests per day. The surge in testing yielded a surge in new infections, but those new infections, surprisingly, have not resulted in a corresponding spike in hospitalizations, even when factoring in the 1-2 week lag before serious symptoms develop.
Here’s Florida’s case infection and hospitalization data since May 1st, which roughly coincides with Governor Ron DeSantis‘s announcement to reopen the state:
The thinner, wavier lines above are the actual daily case numbers, while the thicker lines are the best-fit trendlines, which help visualize the stark difference in infections versus serious cases.
For those who say “just wait” because hospitalizations tend to lag the testing data, the increase in cases begins three weeks ago on May 17th. Over the ensuing 21-day time frame, hospitalizations have just gone down, down, down.
“I think it’s related to the fact that we’ve reopened and people are mobile,” said Dr. Marissa Levine, a public health expert at USF. ” This is our wake-up call. We have to act now and the numbers are telling us we need to do more.”
Fortunately, Governor DeSantis is taking a calmer and more rational approach:
DeSantis pointed to the state’s low rate of positive tests. In Miami-Dade County, the area in Florida hardest hit by the pandemic, the positive rate is around 5% now, much lower than it was in April, when it was more than 10%. With widespread testing now available for anyone who wants it, DeSantis said many people without symptoms are being found positive for the coronavirus.
“These are people, a lot of them don’t even think they’re necessarily sick, but (testing) is there so they go,” he said. “And granted, 98% of them are negative, but you do find cases.”
So far, not even DeSantis is addressing the ever-decreasing hospitalization numbers. Why we’re seeing fewer serious cases remains a mystery. But on May 31st, two Italian doctors made international headlines when they proclaimed that COVID-19 had lost potency:
“In reality, the virus clinically no longer exists in Italy,” said Alberto Zangrillo, the head of the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan in the northern region of Lombardy, which has borne the brunt of Italy’s coronavirus contagion. “The swabs that were performed over the last 10 days showed a viral load in quantitative terms that was absolutely infinitesimal compared to the ones carried out a month or two months ago,” he told RAI television.
The announcement in Italy was quickly denounced by the World Health Organization (WHO), which called the news “unlikely,” and said “this is still a killer virus.”
Of course it is. But only a few days ago, hospital officials in Pittsburgh made a similar announcement:
Doctors at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center said Thursday that the coronavirus appears to be declining both in virulence and infection rate.
“The virus may be changing,” Dr. Donald Yealy said Thursday during a news conference. “Some patterns suggest the potency is diminished.”
Now, Gary McLean, a professor in molecular immunology at London Metropolitan University in New Zealand, says it’s entirely possible that COVID-19 may be accumulating enough mutations that it could become something akin to the common cold:
“It’s really difficult to know why exactly at this point, because there’s a lot of reasons why it could be and there’s no scientific literature, peer-reviewed papers that really document this, but if the clinicians are saying that I have to think it’s probably real.”
The virus may well have changed or attenuated causing a change in the clinical picture, McLean said.
“I would probably favour that in some way the virus is attenuating itself, just by accumulating mutations over time…and these little mutations accumulate and eventually the virus has had long enough in that host, in humans, it will drift and change slightly,” McLean said.
Either way, we should know a lot more within the next several weeks. If it’s still the virus we fear, the significant spike in cases since the beginning of June should produce an easily seen corresponding spike in hospitalizations later this week or next.
We’re keeping our fingers crossed that it doesn’t, but we’ll also keep a sharp eye and report whatever the data shows. Stay tuned…