TAMPA — Much remains to be seen about the coronavirus, but experts from the University of South Florida shared everything they know so far during a virtual town hall Thursday evening with Mayor Jane Castor.
Among the more compelling takeaways: an assessment from two USF professors on how a vaccine might be deployed in Tampa Bay.
People who are young and healthy likely will not have access until 2022, said Michael Teng, an associate professor and an expert on immunology and vaccine development. Those who are more vulnerable can expect it sometime next year, he said.
Decisions on who gets the vaccine first will likely be up to local government leaders, said Edwin Michael, a USF professor specializing in epidemiology and population ecology of disease transmission. It could be the elderly and others who are most vulnerable, he said, or those in high-risk jobs, or even those considered to be “super spreaders."
Those calls will be difficult to make, Michael said. “For me, it’s easy. We just do the studies and release them. It’s the politicians doing life and death.”
Teng said he’s confident the vaccine will be safe. Drug companies are moving fast, but they’ve ramped up the number of people in their trials and are being transparent about ingredients, he said, adding that he’ll take the vaccine as soon as it’s available to him.
“You can go fast, or you can go really, really, really safe," Teng said. “What they’re trying to do is thread that needle. ... This is an emergency pandemic."
About 70 people tuned in for the event, which competed with dueling town halls Thursday night featuring President Trump and his challenger, former vice president Joe Biden. The Tampa event was held at Busch Gardens and presented on Facebook.
Castor criticized Trump’s response to the pandemic, saying it was slow and incomplete — and that it set Florida back on its own response. “I have never seen an incident or an issue that was so inadequately responded to,” she said.
Though the mayor worries about small businesses closing and people losing housing, she said she still expects Tampa to bounce back more quickly than other cities around the country.
Tampa is fiscally healthy, she said, and it continues to be a place people want to bring their families and business, even in a pandemic.
Castor also criticized the state for not doing enough contact tracing, an investigative process used to locate people who have been exposed to an infectious disease. She said the state doesn’t release data in a timely manner either.
“The only thing that we have that’s consistent is the inconsistency," she said.
Dr. Kami Kim, a USF professor of internal medicine who also practices at Tampa General Hospital, said doctors have learned a lot about COVID-19 since the pandemic began. There are more treatments proving successful and physicians have a better handle on how to help patients with varying levels of disease.
There is one group, though, that’s challenged them, Kim said. USF clinics are getting more and more calls from patients who previously had the virus and are aren’t recovering. Some still have significant trouble breathing; others have psychological complaints.
Michael pointed out that a disproportionate percentage Black and Hispanic Americans have become sick with the virus, as well as died from it.
Castor said that’s true in Tampa, adding that many minorities on the east and west sides of the city live in densely populated housing, use public transportation and work in jobs with more exposure to the virus.
“We as a society will have to think going forward, how do we address the social inequalities in our communities?” Michael said.
The panel opened it up to questions near the end of the forum. One was about college kids and how they can keep their parents safe when visiting home. Another person asked how they should combat misinformation about the virus, especially when it comes from government leaders.
Then came a question about what people should do during the upcoming holidays. To visit family or not?
“I’m not going anywhere,” Teng said, adding that he believes small gatherings are starting to drive up infections.
Kim said this will be the first year in more than two decades that she’ll miss a Friendsgiving dinner in New York. It’s just not worth the risk, she said.
Michael urged those listening to be patient and do what they can to keep themselves and others safe. Castor pleaded for people to keep wearing masks.
“We’re all in this together,” Teng said. “We need to protect each other."
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