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Florida COVID death toll nears 2,300 in 2024; experts urge updated vaccines

Orlando Sentinel - 4/11/2024

Although COVID-19 cases are currently low, nearly 2,300 people have died in Florida this year from a virus that refuses to disappear fully.

That has health-care experts reminding Floridians again that it’s time for another booster shot of vaccines designed to prevent serious illness and death.

The biggest risk is for people ages 65 and up. They account for 91% of Florida’s COVID-19 deaths.

During initial vaccine rollouts, elderly people were highly vaccinated. Now only 43% of U.S. residents over 65 are up to date on their shots, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This has led experts to urge this group especially to get immunized.

It’s good to take advantage of relatively low COVID-19 transmission and get the shot now because vaccines take about two weeks to become fully effective, said Jill Roberts, associate professor at USF Health.

“There are less hospitalizations, less deaths, less everything right now,” Roberts said. “I suspect, though, at some point a new variant will come around and it will change all that.”

During the week of March 30, Florida recorded 652 new COVID-19 hospital admissions compared with 15,577 in a single week during the virus’ peak in August 2021.

The CDC recommends everyone 6 months and older get at least one dose of the current COVID vaccine. Children 6 months to 4 years old need multiple doses, and people immunocompromised or over 65 should get an additional booster after four months.

The newest vaccines were approved on Sept. 12, so anyone who got a COVID-19 shot before then is due for another one. The CDC reports about 16% of Florida adults are up-to-date on their COVID-19 vaccines, compared with 23% nationally.

Roberts said even if you don’t fall into a group at higher risk of death, COVID-19 can still have dramatic effects.

An independent analysis of CDC data found about one in 10 U.S. adults who have caught COVID-19 now report having long-term side effects,with symptoms ranging in severity that last well beyond the initial infection.

“I think long COVID, unfortunately, is going to be a bigger factor than what we had anticipated,” Roberts said. “The good news is it seems a majority of people are recovering.”

The available vaccinations available under emergency use authorization are from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Novavax. All are at major pharmacy chains with locations searchable at

Dr. Robert Walker, Novavax’s chief medical officer, said that unlike Pfizer and Moderna’s shots, Novavax is protein-based.

That means that while Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use mRNA created in a lab that teaches people’s cells how to make copies of a spike protein that fights COVID-19, Novavax’s vaccine delivers the spike protein from the virus that causes COVID-19 to teach people’s cells how to fight it.

Novavax’s shot also contains an adjuvant that helps the immune system produce antibodies.

The hope is that Novavax’s shot can appeal to people skeptical of mRNA technology, Walker said, though he added that both mRNA and non-mRNA shots have ample safety data.

“From a public health perspective, we all understand the need for people to be able to exercise choice and their own decision-making,” Walker said. “When you have more options, you have better uptake, and better uptake equals a more highly protected population, which is what we’re all hoping to achieve.”

The CDC does not recommend one brand over another as all have been judged safe and effective.

However, Novavax is a more traditional vaccine technology that has been around for over 30 years and has been used in other widely used immunizations against flu, HPV and hepatitis B. The shot does not contain the live virus that causes COVID-19 and can’t spread it.

Major health organizations worldwide and most scientists continue to endorse the safety and efficacy of mRNA vaccines. Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo has expressed skepticism and called for more research.

Florida surgeon general calls to pause COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, citing discredited theory

Ladapo first advised against COVID-19 mRNA vaccines for healthy kids, then men ages 18-39, and later recommended against them for those under 65. He then called to end their use entirely in January, referring to them as  “the antichrist” on Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast.

Neither the Florida Department of Health nor Ladapo responded immediately about whether they would recommend Novavax’s non-mRNA vaccine. The health department has not updated its COVID-19 vaccine information on its website since April 2023.

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