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The heat is on: Will Florida’s warm weather help or hurt coronavirus?

Coronavirus was discovered in the winter. Will spring and summer change anything? Scientists hope so, but no knows if the changing seasons will inhibit COVID-19.
Published Mar. 7, 2020
Updated Mar. 11, 2020

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new reporting to emphasize that scientists don’t know how the changing seasons and warmer weather will affect the coronavirus pandemic.

Here’s one more coronavirus thing to worry about: What will happen to COVID-19 as the temperature rises and Florida’s usually sweltering weather takes over?

Temperatures start rising into the upper 80s as soon as next week. The three-month outlook calls for above normal temperatures in Florida, the eastern and southwest U.S. this spring, according to the National Weather Service.

“Everyone is hoping that a seasonal change will stop the spread,” said Dr. John Sinnott, a specialist in infectious disease and chair of internal medicine at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine.

However, while scientists have hypothesized that weather may play a factor — nations south of China for example, aren’t experiencing serious outbreaks — the Washington Post reported that no one has definitively linked temperature, humidity, latitude and seasonality to the spread of COVID-19.

While other flu strains do ebb and flow according to the seasons, the reality is that coronavirus may not go away this summer.

Related: Love in the time of coronavirus: How COVID-19 is changing Tampa Bay’s dating scene

Why do some diseases thrive in the winter?

Coronavirus was discovered in December in Wuhan, China. Respiratory diseases — like the flu, colds and novel coronavirus — tend to flourish during chilly months.

That is partly due to changes in behavior. As it gets colder, people gather indoors together, exposing each other to more pathogens.

Coziness comes at a cost, however. Heating our homes, businesses and vehicles can affect one of the body’s top defense mechanisms: the bacteria-killing, antibody-rich mucus that lines our airways.

“In the heated home...the mucus dries out and loses its protective function,” Sinnott said. “That’s why we have seasonal variability in respiratory infections.”

Related: Help prevent coronavirus by washing your hands to these 20 songs

A course in other coronaviruses

A quarter of all colds are caused by coronaviruses, Sinnott said. Notable coronaviruses, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), did not show seasonal changes.

But they also are different from COVID-19 in ways that make it hard to use those illnesses as indicators of what could come next.

Neither was a typical respiratory illness. And neither moved as slowly as COVID-19. Novel coronavirus can incubate for two to 14 days before infected bodies start to show symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During this period, people are contagious.

“MERS and SARS are unique in that they kill so quickly that they don’t have a chance to spread well,” Sinnott said. “If you’re walking around one day and dead the next, you don’t infect a lot of people.”

Related: Long before coronavirus, Florida caught Spanish flu. How bad was it?

Could coronavirus return in the fall?

Sinnott believes this is possible. One example of this phenomenon: The Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918, which claimed 50 to 100 million lives more than a hundred years ago.

“People got sick in the winter and spring, then it seemed to go away," he said. “Then it came back next fall and essentially ended World War I.”

“Everyone is hoping the seasonal change will stop the spread, there’s not any evidence to that. But a lot of people are hoping for it."

Correction: Novel coronavirus can incubate for two to 14 days. An earlier version of this story misstated the time period. In a previous version of this story, a word was omitted that wrongly implied Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) are not respiratory illnesses. That wording has been fixed.

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide

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