The number of COVID-19 cases in the Florida Keys has risen significantly since July 4, and Monroe County health officials said there are some very significant points residents should consider, specifically the Delta variant that has become the dominant coronavirus strain, and noted that the Lambda strain is emerging out of South America.

“People think, ‘The outbreak is over,’ ” said Florida Department of Health in Monroe County Administrator Bob Eadie. “In reality, it isn’t. If you haven’t gotten vaccinated, you are no different than when we started with this.

“My message is that you need to get vaccinated. And if you are not vaccinated, you should be wearing a mask. And 99% of those being hospitalized are not vaccinated. If you have the vaccination, you are safe. But you can still transmit it if you’re exposed to it, and have it in your nasal passages.”

Eadie said the recent uptick in COVID cases is connected to large July 4th gatherings and the fact that wearing masks is no longer mandated.

“We’ve seen since July 4 an increase in the number of positive tests we’ve had for COVID,” he said. “We’re now averaging 12 a day, and before July 4 it was about two or three a day. We have had some outbreaks in clusters.”

Dr. Mark Whiteside, the local health department medical director, told The Key West Citizen that Lower Keys Medical Center has had four COVID-19 patients this week after having zero the previous week.

“This virus will find a way to find the unvaccinated,” said Whiteside. “The vaccine is very effective and has performed better than I thought.”

Vaccinations are becoming even more important with new strains making their way to the United States.

“We have so many visitors in and out of Key West,” said Eadie. “We have not confirmed the Delta variant here, but it would be hard to say that it isn’t here. I assume that it’s very likely to be here, but we’ve not run the sequencing to confirm it.”

Whiteside added, “We assume it’s here because 50% of the new cases in Florida are Delta. Florida is one of the leading states while cases have risen across the country over the last two weeks.”

He mentioned the Lambda strain, which Houston reported having its first case from, according to a National Public Radio report on Thursday, July 22. CNBC reported two weeks ago that since April, Lambda has accounted for 81% of COVID cases in Peru, where it originated.

“There will be other variants that continue to spin out of developing countries,” said Whiteside. “Less than 5% in Africa have been vaccinated.”

The Florida Hospital Association reported Saturday, July 17, that 47.3% of those in the state had been fully vaccinated, while The New York Times listed the vaccination rate for Monroe County at 58%.

Whiteside said 68% of those 12-and-older have been vaccinated in Monroe County, “ranking close to the top of 67 counties” in Florida.

Still, despite that, coronavirus is on the rise again.

The Florida Hospital Association reported that hospitalizations in Florida were currently about half (5,359) of what they were at the peak of COVID in July 2020 (10,179). Lower Keys Medical Center added those four hospitalizations this week.

“If you are not vaccinated,” said Eadie, “you should be wearing a mask. Get vaccinated! I do not understand that (thought) process at all (of refusing vaccinations).”

Whiteside added, “I wear a mask with patients and in indoor settings. I can not throw caution to the wind. For your own protection, take precautions. Still practice distancing, wearing masks in crowds and wash your hands often.

“The last two weeks (with the Delta variant uptick) are the real thing. It’s increasing globally and is in 100 countries now. We have to work together globally.”

Eadie said there are numerous COVID testing sites in Monroe County, and a list is available at http://www.http://monroe.floridahealth.gov/programs-and-services/community-partners/_documents/ENG-testing2.pdf.

There are new variants of the coronavirus, significant numbers of citizens still not vaccinated and rising numbers of infections and hospitalizations.

Whiteside summed it up: “This is not over. And in a tourist area like ours, we all have to be cautious and do the right things.”