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5 things Tampa General Hospital wants you to know about omicron

Chief medical officer Peggy Duggan shared what the medical staff has learned from treating the first omicron patients.
Dr. Seetha Lakshmi, center foreground, works with a multidisciplinary team of hospital staff and University of South Florida infectious disease doctors in the COVID-19 unit at Tampa General Hospital in August.
Dr. Seetha Lakshmi, center foreground, works with a multidisciplinary team of hospital staff and University of South Florida infectious disease doctors in the COVID-19 unit at Tampa General Hospital in August. [ DANIEL WALLACE | Tampa General Hospital ]
Published Dec. 29, 2021|Updated Dec. 29, 2021

As the number of COVID-19 infections spikes across the state, hospitals are preparing for a new wave of patients.

Florida reported 125,201 coronavirus cases over the seven-day period Dec. 17-23, according to the latest Department of Health data. That’s an average of about 17,886 infections per day — a jump of more than 320 percent from the week before.

Peggy Duggan of Tampa General Hospital
Peggy Duggan of Tampa General Hospital [ SUSAN R SYMONDS; SUSAN R SYMONDS FOR MAINFRAME PHOTOGRAPHICS INC | Provided ]

The omicron variant is being blamed for this latest pandemic wave. While the spike remains lower than this summer’s peak, it still raises concerns among public health officials and physicians, who are learning about this extremely infectious variant.

“Everyone who has COVID is likely to have omicron,” said Peggy Duggan, Tampa General Hospital’s chief medical officer.

Duggan shared with the Tampa Bay Times what she and Tampa General’s medical staff have learned from treating the first omicron patients. Here’s what you need to know.

• • •

Omicron is extremely infectious

With a new, highly mutated variant, the science looks similar to the beginning of the pandemic in that there may be frequent changes in what precautions public health officials recommend as they learn more about omicron, Duggan said.

Omicron is extremely infectious, yet may present symptoms different from those caused by previous variants. “There’s a lot more sneezing than before,” said Duggan, which may increase transmission rates as the virus propels through the air.

For the vaccinated and boosted, contracting COVID-19 now may result in symptoms that could resemble a fever, cold or allergies. The unvaccinated and those who have yet to receive a booster shot remain at risk for more serious infection.

But there appears to be less pneumonia developing in patients, which is keeping many of the hospitalized off of ventilators.

“It’s early,” Duggan cautioned. “Two weeks from now, it could be a lot different.”

The hospital is preparing now for an uptick in the number of beds needed for patients, she said.

Related: Florida’s second COVID Christmas marred by 320% infection hike
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Don’t go to the ER to get tested

As infections and exposures spike because of the omicron variant, experts say it’s important to get tested so people will know if they need to isolate to reduce the chance of spreading the virus.

That said, if you need to get tested, don’t go to the hospital.

“We should go anywhere but the emergency department for tests,” Duggan said.

Reducing the number of people entering the hospital helps control the spread of the virus inside and allows hospitals to focus on the sickest patients.

“It makes it hard to take care of sick patients,” said Duggan.

If you are experiencing a medical emergency, you should still go to the nearest emergency room. But if you need to get tested, look for a local pharmacy, urgent care center or public testing site.

Related: Tampa Bay residents line up at public sites for free COVID tests without appointments
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Treating omicron is different from delta

How Tampa General Hospital treats omicron patients is shifting from the way it handled previous variants. Treatments such as monoclonal antibodies that worked for delta don’t appear to be as effective with omicron, Duggan said.

Since monoclonal antibodies don’t appear to be reducing hospitalizations, Tampa General physicians are instead using antivirals like remdesivir. But those drugs are reserved for high-risk patients who have preexisting conditions, Duggan said. “We do want to protect our most vulnerable patients.”

New oral antiviral drugs that can be taken at home may soon help. Pfizer’s paxlovid has received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. Merck is seeking approval for its drug, molnupiravir.

Getting annual vaccine shots to protect against COVID-19 could become a part of how we manage our lives moving forward, Duggan said.

“Many, many people get a flu shot without even thinking about it.”

Related: I got exposed to COVID. Here’s what I learned to do next.
• • •

Vaccines, boosters are the best protection

The best protection against COVID-19′s most serious symptoms is to get vaccinated and get the appropriate booster shot at the right time.

Those who have received two doses of Pfizer or Moderna are encouraged to get a booster as soon as they are eligible, Duggan said.

Those who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine should get a booster shot after 2 months, preferably using one of the other mRNA vaccines, Pfizer or Moderna.

The effectiveness of vaccines can wane 3 to 6 months after the initial doses. A third shot quickly boosts your immunity.

Everyone 5 and up is eligible to get vaccinated, and ages 16 and up are eligible to get a booster.

“Your immune system really bounces right back,” the doctor said.

Related: Are you ‘fully vaccinated’ against COVID? Omicron may change that.
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Back to basics: Masks and social distancing

Tampa General Hospital strongly encourages everyone to get vaccinated and boosted and to resume practicing social distancing, frequently washing their hands and always wearing masks indoors.

Thin cloth masks are less effective at preventing viral spread. It’s better to use surgical masks, KN95 masks or the gold standard, N95 masks. You could also double-mask by wearing a cloth mask over a surgical mask.

Related: Why won’t Florida, CDC release state’s breakthrough COVID data?

• • •

How to get vaccinated

The COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 and up and booster shots for eligible recipients are being administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination sites. Many allow appointments to be booked online. Here’s how to find a site near you:

Find a site: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your zip code.

More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline.

Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.

TTY: 888-720-7489

Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

KIDS AND VACCINES: Got questions about vaccinating your kid? Here are some answers.

BOOSTER SHOTS: Confused about which COVID booster to get? This guide will help.

BOOSTER QUESTIONS: Are there side effects? Why do I need it? Here’s the answers to your questions.

PROTECTING SENIORS: Here’s how seniors can stay safe from the virus.

COVID AND THE FLU: Get a flu shot and the COVID vaccine to avoid a ‘twindemic.’

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A TRIBUTE TO FLORIDIANS TAKEN BY THE CORONAVIRUS: They were parents and retirees, police officers and doctors, imperfect but loved deeply.

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