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Tampa Bay braces for another possible surge in coronavirus cases

“Pandemic fatigue” is causing many to abandon safety measures, experts say. Hospitals are getting ready, “but we need the community to do its part, too.”

Tampa Bay is again on the brink of a possible surge in coronavirus patients, with cases rising by the hundreds daily as people return to normal rhythms and the holiday season looms.

Florida’s number of cases was higher Thursday than any day since mid-August, with more than 6,200 cases reported by the Department of Health. Counts are increasing locally, too, leading to a rise in hospital admissions by about a quarter in the last month, state data shows.

At the same time, “pandemic fatigue” is intensifying, health experts say. Some residents are throwing safety guidelines aside and again taking part in activities like dining out, crowding bars and gathering in groups. The holidays are likely to further the problem, as people travel and get together.

Local hospitals are bracing, much like they did in the summer, when COVID-19 cases spiked and taxed health care workers and supplies. Doctors say they’re keeping a close watch on data, so they’re ready for what might be ahead.

“It’s one of those periods of time where you can’t let your eyes off the numbers,” said Dr. George Ralls, chief medical officer for Orlando Health, which recently bought Bayfront Health St. Petersburg.

Other hospital executives and doctors throughout the region say they, too, are carefully tracking coronavirus data. BayCare Health System uses it to run through scenarios and plan for “the best case, the middle-of-the-road case and the worst case," said chief operating officer Glenn Waters.

“We have done some different predictions,” he said. “One is, if we get back to where we were in July, will we be prepared for that? The answer is yes. If it gets worse? We are trying to be prepared for that, but we don’t know."

From Oct. 1 to Nov. 1, the weekly average number of hospitalizations from the virus in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties grew by 24 percent, according to data analyzed by the Tampa Bay Times. Pasco saw the steepest jump over the last 10 days of October, with the weekly average number of admissions jumping from 39 to 57 — a 46 percent increase.

On Friday, about 550 people were hospitalized with the virus in those four counties, along with Manatee, Polk and Citrus counties. About 24 percent of hospital beds and about 28 percent of intensive care unit beds were available for new patients, according to the Agency for Health Care Administration.

Evidence of the coronavirus' growing spread in Tampa Bay extends beyond the numbers, said Dr. Andrew Myers, head of COVID-19 care at Tampa General Hospital and an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of South Florida. He’s observed other worrying markers.

Patients in his unit lately are sicker, he said, and many say they have no idea where they might have contracted the virus. More patients come to the hospital for reasons unrelated to COVID-19, like a car accident or heart attack, and end up testing positive during admission screenings.

“If we don’t see a change in trajectory, we could see a very difficult time coming forward,” Myers said.

The increased prevalence of the virus can be attributed to events weeks or even months ago that have had a trickle-down effect, said Jay Wolfson, a professor of public health at USF.

First came Memorial Day weekend, which brought thousands of visitors to Tampa Bay in May. Then schools reopened in August, followed by bars and restaurants in September. Thousands gathered mask-less in the streets of Tampa to celebrate the Lightning’s Stanley Cup win. Then presidential campaign stops collided in Tampa just before Halloween.

All of it has had an impact on the number of infections, Wolfson said. Most cases in the last few months have been among those ages 20 to 45, a population less likely to get very ill but more likely to spread the disease unknowingly.

“They pass it to their friends and weeks later, you begin to see the trickle-down to those individuals who are at higher risk, like parents, grandparents, the elderly,” he said. “It takes a while, but it creates what we are starting to see now in Tampa Bay."

Tampa Bay Lightning fans celebrated the team's Stanley Cup win following a boat parade on Sept. 30. Experts say a recent rise in coronavirus cases in the area may be the delayed result of crowded events in recent weeks and months as people abandoned social distancing due to "pandemic fatigue."
Tampa Bay Lightning fans celebrated the team's Stanley Cup win following a boat parade on Sept. 30. Experts say a recent rise in coronavirus cases in the area may be the delayed result of crowded events in recent weeks and months as people abandoned social distancing due to "pandemic fatigue." [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

People are generally frustrated with the pandemic and the restraints that have come with it, said Myers, the Tampa General doctor. So some have stopped social distancing, wearing masks and taking other precautions.

“People are kind of tired of being told they can’t do what they want to do,” he said. “They can’t see grandpa, can’t go to their favorite bar to see the Bucs play, they can’t travel. Everyone has a reason that it sucks to still have to deal with COVID. ... But last I checked, the virus did not care."

The coronavirus won’t simply go away, said Dr. Nishant Anand, chief medical officer of BayCare. It will have cycles and peaks until transmissions stop or an effective vaccine is deployed to enough people — and that will take time.

In the meantime, Wolfson said, the community must keep following the recommendations experts have stressed from the start: social distancing, masks and good hand hygiene.

This is not the time to let our guard down, said Dr. Antonio Crespo, medical director of Orlando Health’s Infectious Disease Group.

“We in the hospitals are ready to take care of those who need us, but we need the community to do its part, too.”

Staff writer Langston Taylor contributed to this report.

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