Will Tampa Bay see a winter surge of COVID?  Here's what you need to know.

Will Tampa Bay see a winter surge of COVID? Here’s what you need to know.

Over the past two years, COVID-19 has surged in Tampa Bay over the holidays.

Cases soared as the omicron variant took center stage nearly 12 months ago. The dead too. Long lines of pandemic-weary residents snaked through Al Lopez Park in Tampa, eager to get tested. Some passed out while waiting. The virus has disrupted family traditions, strained hospitals and infected thousands.

But by the end of January, will another wave of cases and deaths flood the region after people celebrate the holidays?

Experts are cautiously optimistic that while an increase in infections is likely, a devastating wave of disease will not occur. This is because widespread population-level immunity built up from past infections and vaccinations is much higher now than it was before, which will help mitigate severe cases in the weeks to come. said William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

Related: Why most Tampa Bay hospitals are relaxing mask rules

However, the anemic uptake of updated booster shots across Florida and the rest of the country is alarming and could lead to a worse-than-expected COVID-19 spike, even if not as severe as the previous surges, said Jason Salemi, a University of South Florida epidemiologist.

And while the virus may not be as concerning as it once was, other respiratory illnesses are circulating widely.

Here’s what to know about COVID-19 in Tampa Bay.

What’s going on with the latest subvariants?

Experts warn that the swarm of new omicron subvariants circulating in the United States and Florida – BQ.1, BQ.1.1 – will cause problems for people with weakened immune systems. The fast-spreading subvariants, which evade the body’s immune response, account for nearly half of new cases in the United States, according to federal estimates.

Evusheld, a monoclonal antibody treatment prescribed to immunocompromised people to protect them against the virus, is likely ineffective against the subvariants — a blow for people at high risk of complications from COVID-19.

How many people receive updated vaccines?

The latest boosters, called bivalent vaccines because they target both the original COVID-19 strain and the omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants, were rolled out to adults and adolescents in early September, then cleared for children last month.

So far, only 7% of Floridians ages 5 and older have received the new reminders, which is lower than the national rate of 11%. And only 20% of Florida seniors have been vaccinated, which is the fourth lowest rate of any US state. Disease Control and Prevention, but the federal agency did not provide the information.

The Florida Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment on whether it was doing anything to encourage recalls, especially among older adults, who are most susceptible to the virus. Since the start of the pandemic, residents 65 and older have accounted for 15% of cases statewide but more than three-quarters of deaths, according to data released by the department.

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Related: COVID-19 linked to dramatic increase in pregnancy-related deaths in US

Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna say the new vaccines boost anti-virus antibodies that target BA.5, a once-dominant subvariant that now accounts for just 24% of recent cases in the United States. But it’s unclear how effective vaccines are against BQ. 1 and BQ.1.1, which quickly take over.

Still, experts say people should be boosted because the injections will “almost certainly” offer some protection against the latest subvariants, according to Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden.

“The extent to which BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 are going to do damage during the winter months…a lot of that story has to do with the absorption of the bivalent booster,” Salemi said.

He noted that in Western Europe – which has been an indicator of future COVID-19 surges in the United States – BQ.1.1 triggered an increase in cases across France, but the rise quickly subsided without a deluge of hospitalizations.

Related: COVID shots saved the lives of at least 330,000 seniors last year

That’s promising news for Americans, but “you never know if it completely extrapolates what we’re going to see here,” Salemi said. France has a higher recall rate than the United States

Either way, he said, widespread immunity will help mitigate the effects of the subvariants.

How common is COVID-19 right now?

At the moment, the virus is not a major concern for medical centers in the region, but they are closely monitoring other respiratory illnesses. COVID-19 positivity rates have increased in recent weeks in the 15-hospital BayCare Health System, but not substantially. Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties are at low risk of contracting the virus, according to federal health officials.

“We’re not seeing a lot of COVID right now,” said Peggy Duggan, chief medical officer at Tampa General Hospital, which earlier this month was only treating 15 people with the virus. Most patients were admitted for other reasons and tested positive.

On November 17, there were only two COVID-19 patients at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, according to a spokesperson.

Related: Scientists question Florida advice against COVID mRNA vaccines for some men

Statewide, weekly cases have mostly increased since late October, with 11,828 recorded between Nov. 9 and Nov. 16, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s down 4% from the previous week, but likely an undercount because many people are using home tests and not reporting their results to health authorities. (Hospitalizations and deaths remained stable, with an average of 178 new admissions per day and 26 deaths per day.)

In the coming weeks, Duggan said she doesn’t expect hospitalizations to break the records set last summer when the delta variant hit Florida, forcing medical facilities to put elective surgeries on hold in order to be able to free up beds for seriously ill patients.

But nurses and doctors face a new challenge in the United States: an early flu season associated with a spike in respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, a common infection of the lungs and airways that causes cold-like symptoms. .

Many young children were not exposed to RSV during the pandemic, possibly contributing to the increase in cases now that COVID-19 precautions are ending.

Related: Tampa Bay Children’s Hospitals Report Rise in Respiratory Illnesses

All Children’s has recorded high levels of RSV since May, which is unusual, said Allison Messina, head of the hospital’s infectious disease division.

And BayCare is grappling with an increase in flu cases, said quality manager Laura Arline.

Hospital leaders said Tampa Bay residents should consider wearing masks to help curb the spread of respiratory illnesses.

“We are already seeing influenza and RSV, at least in the Southeast, straining some aspects of our healthcare system,” Schaffner said. “And if COVID were to pick up in a noticeable way, we would again see facilities and staff stretched to capacity.”

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