Florida reported 21,683 new coronavirus cases on Friday, the state’s highest one-day total since the start of the pandemic, according to data released Saturday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The data shows the severity of the surge in Florida, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak and now responsible for 1 in 5 new infections nationally. The previous peak in Florida had been on Jan. 7, when the state reported 19,334 cases, according to the CDC — before the widespread availability of coronavirus vaccinations. Florida has reported an average of 15,818 new cases a day over the past seven days, according to data compiled by The Washington Post.

The Florida Department of Health reported that coronavirus cases in the state had jumped 50 percent in the past week. In that time, the state has reported 409 deaths.

In addition to the highly transmissible delta variant, vaccine holdouts and the widespread resumption of normal activities have led to a surge in infections, hospitalizations and deaths nationwide. With the United States reporting more than 70,000 cases a day, case numbers have risen to levels not seen since February.

About 49 percent of Florida’s population has been fully vaccinated as of Sunday.

White House Covid-19 Response Team coordinator Jeff Zients underscored new U.S. coronavirus cases occurring in Florida while speaking to reporters on July 16. (The Washington Post)

State health officials have indicated that hospitals are struggling to keep up with the number of covid-19 patients. The Florida Hospital Association said Friday that covid hospitalizations are approaching last year’s peak. The state leads the nation in hospitalizations, with more than 10,000 as of early Sunday, according to The Post’s covid tracker. The number of covid hospitalizations is close to breaking the record set in the state in July 2020.

“There is no higher risk area in the United States than we’re seeing here,” Aileen Marty, an infectious-disease expert at Florida International University, told CBS Miami. “The numbers that we’re seeing are unbelievable, just unbelievably frightening.”

AdventHealth’s Central Florida Division, one of the state’s largest health-care systems, recently advised that it would not be conducting non-emergency surgeries — to help free up resources for covid patients. More than 2,000 intensive care unit beds in Florida are occupied by covid patients.

At Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, all of the beds at its covid-only intensive care unit are filled with unvaccinated patients. Ademola Ayo Akinkunmi, director of patient care services for Jackson Health System, told the Miami Herald that the rise of the delta variant in an area where vaccination rates are low has left doctors scrambling to find more space to deal with the uptick in covid patients.

“It just went boom,” Akinkunmi said. “No matter how hard we work to discharge patients, we know there are others coming.”

Doctors at Tampa General Hospital are seeing more than 90 covid patients, breaking its previous record, Seetha Lakshmi, medical director of its Global Emerging Diseases Institute, told the Associated Press. Lakshmi noted that 83 percent of the hospital’s covid patients are unvaccinated.

“It feels like we are getting hit by a train, the pace is so fast and uncontrolled,” she said. “I just don’t have any words anymore. This is awful, just awful, and it is going to be awful.”

Florida’s surge comes as Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) recently announced that parents will be given the choice of whether their children follow mask rules in school this fall. The Friday decision, shortly before Florida is set to resume in-person learning, is a challenge to federal guidance and local school districts. DeSantis’s announcement, which followed several Republican-led states that have barred mask mandates in schools, was decried by critics as “irresponsible” and “appalling” amid the surge in infections.

But DeSantis has maintained that the increase is a “seasonal wave” caused by more people being indoors and air-conditioning systems circulating the virus. The governor said Friday that he did not believe masks were necessary to prevent children from transmitting the virus in classrooms, even as the state reported more than 21,000 infections among children younger than 19 last week.

“Why would we have the government force masks on our kids when many of these kids are already immune through prior infection, they’re at virtually zero risk of significant illness and when virtually every school personnel had access to vaccines for months and months?” DeSantis said.

Disney announced on July 30 all its on-site salaried and non-union hourly U.S. employees would be required to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. (Reuters)

Some of the state’s biggest companies have responded to the surge in cases with restrictions for employees and customers. Disney, the world’s largest entertainment company, said it is requiring all salaried and nonunion hourly employees in the country to be fully vaccinated to help fight the delta variant. New hires also will be required to be fully vaccinated before they begin working at Disney, the company said.

Those who work at one of Disney’s sites but remain unvaccinated must get inoculated within 60 days, according to a company statement. Disney added that it has reached out to unions representing its employees regarding a vaccine mandate to be included under collective bargaining agreements, Bloomberg News reported.

Disney also joined Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld in requiring visitors to wear masks indoors. Universal Orlando Resort and Publix, the state’s largest supermarket chain, also ordered employees to wear masks at work.

“The health and safety of our guests and team members is always our top priority,” Universal said in a statement.

A coronavirus variant discovered in Colombia is also showing up in South Florida. Carlos Migoya, CEO of Jackson Health System, recently told WPLG that the B.1.621 variant has accounted for infections in some coronavirus patients, trailing behind the delta and gamma variants. B.1.621 has yet to receive a Greek-letter designation, as more prominent variants have.

Health experts are expected to keep B.1.621 on their radar as the fall season looms on a state struggling with the fourth wave of the pandemic.

Lateshia Beachum contributed to this report.

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