Easing restrictions before everyone is vaccinated could backfire, experts warn

With Florida’s COVID-19 restrictions now out the door, some public health experts are concerned about potential fallout from easing up too soon before enough people are vaccinated.

Scientists at the University of South Florida said they don’t expect any sudden changes in the number of infections but they explained why Florida’s now in a tricky spot, going forward.

"There were quite a few people who weren’t wearing masks anyway because there’s no real enforcement mechanism," said Dr. Michael Teng, a virologist with USF Health.

Public health experts who track COVID-19 are paying attention to what may follow the governor's decision.

MORE: Publix, public schools to continue mask requirements in Florida, for now

"I think it’s really unfortunate that the governor decided to do this now," said epidemiologist Dr. Thomas Unnasch with USF Health. "If he had waited another six weeks to announce this we would have been free and in the clear. We would’ve had enough people vaccinated and we would have been on the bad end of the epidemic."

Scientists said not enough people are vaccinated, so there’s a risk of giving the virus a better chance to spread. Dr. Teng said infections may rise but not as bad as before.

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"Part of the mitigating factor is part of us have been vaccinated and are fully vaccinated, so it’s not as terrible as it seems when last summer masks and physical distancing were the only things we had against the virus," said Teng.

Other states like Texas and West Virginia recently lifted all COVID restrictions.

Researchers said they have not seen a corresponding jump in cases there. But scientists say Florida is different because the state dominates the country with the more contagious UK variant.

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"So releasing all of the restrictions now I think could be a dangerous thing to do. We may see an uptick," said Unnasch.

Public health experts said Florida is far from the 70% of residents that should be vaccinated to fully relax rules. They said the challenge now is to keep vaccine numbers ahead of infections.

3,682 new Florida coronavirus cases reported Tuesday; 92 new deaths

The Florida Department of Health says the number of known cases of COVID-19 in the state rose by 3,682 Tuesday. According to the state's daily update, the total number of cases in Florida since the pandemic began is now 2,249,535.