TAMPA — The highly infectious omicron variant may be less virulent than previous strains of COVID-19, but Florida hospitals — including those in the Tampa Bay region — are seeing a significant uptick in patients as the variant continues its rapid spread.
The number of daily hospital admissions for COVID-19 rose by 290 percent in the past two weeks, with nearly 1,900 patients admitted Tuesday to Florida hospitals. That’s still lower than at the peak of the delta surge last summer, but with infections still rising, there’s concern that omicron could yet surpass delta numbers and once again burden hospital emergency rooms and intensive care units.
While a smaller percentage of infections will result in hospitalization, doctors warn that omicron still carries risk of serious illness or death for the unvaccinated, elderly, immune compromised and those with underlying health conditions.
As of Tuesday, Florida hospitals were caring for more than 7,400 COVID patients, up from about 1,000 one month ago. It’s the highest total since Aug. 28. It includes more than 150 patients at Tampa General Hospital with 23 of those in intensive care.
“Those numbers have gone up very rapidly,” said Dr. David Wein, chief of emergency medicine at Tampa General Hospital. “It can still cause a strain on the hospital system.”
The alarming numbers do harbor some good news. Unlike delta, which attacked the lungs, omicron’s symptoms are more likely in the upper respiratory system. That means fewer patients needing high-flow nasal oxygen treatment, and fewer needing to go into intensive care where they typically end up on a ventilator.
But Wein stressed that the virus is still a cause for concern with symptoms that include breathing difficulties, sore throats and gastro-intestinal issues including nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
What hasn’t changed from the delta surge is that the unvaccinated still make up the vast majority of those hospitalized, Wein said. Around 80 percent of those admitted are not fully vaccinated, he said, a decision that increases the risk factor for patients.
“The vaccine still does a reasonably good job of protecting against hospitalization and protecting against the most serious complications from infections,” Wein said.
So far, the hospital hasn’t had to consider emergency measures like suspending elective surgeries as it did during the delta surge. But it has gone back to organizing its emergency department into a “surge flow” model to try and keep other patients apart from those who have tested positive or are likely to do so, Wein said.
More than 400 COVID patients are being cared for across the 15 hospitals that make up the BayCare hospital system in the Tampa Bay and Central Florida region.
Chief medical officer Nishant Anand said those admitted are typically spending fewer days in the hospital than they did during the delta surge, meaning hospitals have a better chance of coping with additional patients. But he warned that the virus can still leave unvaccinated and people with compromised immune systems such as transplant or cancer patients weak, dehydrated and vulnerable.
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“It’s like when any sort of infection overwhelms the body,” he said. “If affects multiple organs throughout the body and can lead to shock.”
An additional complication with omicron is that doctors say they can no longer use most monoclonal antibodies to treat those infected. The federal government recently announced a temporary pause on shipments of the Regeneron and Eli Lilly products on Dec. 23, noting clinical evidence that the treatments would be ineffective against omicron.
Anand said patients are still being treated with remdesivir, an antiviral medication. He is optimistic that new pills from Pfizer and Merck will prove effective too.
Most of those developing serious symptoms have been patients 75 and older, more in line with the original strain of COVID-19, he said.
Anand is hopeful that the surge will not repeat the heavy strain placed on hospitals in the summer when most saw record COVID admissions and were forced to suspend elective surgeries. He urged the public to get vaccinated or to get the booster shot and to use medical-grade masks when in crowded indoor places.
“Based on what we’ve seen in South Africa, it will be a rapid increase but it will be just as fast to hit the peak and come down,” he said.
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How to get tested
Tampa Bay: The Times can help you find the free, public COVID-19 testing sites in Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota counties.
Florida: The Department of Health has a website that lists testing sites in the state. Some information may be out of date.
The U.S.: The Department of Health and Human Services has a website that can help you find a testing site.
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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.
Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.
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More 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.
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