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Contagious omicron variant is straining Florida hospitals

Admissions have increased nearly twice as fast as with previous variants. The state is averaging 61,500 infections daily.
Workers register and test patients on Monday at the public drive-through COVID-19 testing site at Hillsborough Community College’s Brandon campus.
Workers register and test patients on Monday at the public drive-through COVID-19 testing site at Hillsborough Community College’s Brandon campus. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jan. 15
Updated Jan. 15

The omicron variant is highly contagious. People develop symptoms faster than previous variants. Add it all up and a lot of Floridians are quickly falling ill to COVID-19.

Daily hospital admissions have increased nearly twice as fast as during previous infection surges, federal data shows. In the past week, state hospitals admitted 12,495 confirmed COVID-19 patients.

Those patients may be spared the worst symptoms of older variants. Omicron appears to be less severe — mostly affecting the upper respiratory system rather than the lungs — which can result in shorter hospital stays for those who need treatment. About 13 percent of the state’s COVID-19 patients are currently in the ICU, compared to nearly 30 percent during the peak of the delta wave.

The burden on Florida hospitals is being driven by the variant’s mostly unchecked spread across a state where 31 percent of the total population — 6.9 million — are unvaccinated and public health measures such as masks and vaccination requirements have been banned by state leaders.

The result is a third straight weekly infection record: 430,297 new COVID-19 cases and 470 deaths were reported from Jan. 7 through Thursday, according to the latest weekly report released Friday. Weekly cases are now nearly three times higher than at the peak of the delta wave. That means 2 percent of Florida’s population of nearly 22 million people tested positive in the past week.

The state is averaging a record peak of nearly 61,500 infections a day. It is on the verge of surpassing 5 million total infections since the pandemic started 22 months ago. Deaths now total 63,158. While omicron may be less severe to many, it is still a serious health threat to the unvaccinated, the immunocompromised, the elderly and those with chronic or pre-existing conditions.

Even with patients being discharged more quickly, Florida hospitals are starting to feel the squeeze of increased admissions. Approximately 10 percent of Florida hospitals reported having a staffing shortage this week, and more than 20 percent anticipate facing a shortage in the coming week.

Related: Florida won’t enforce federal health care worker vaccine mandate

As with previous waves, older Floridians are disproportionately harmed by the virus. Floridians over 60 have the lowest infection rate in the state (23 percent), but still accounted for more than 60 percent of adult hospital admissions in the past seven days.

Children and young adults continue to have the highest positivity rates. Nearly a third of those ages 5 to 29 tested positive for the virus.

The weekly death toll of 470 is the highest number recorded since early November. That includes 111 residents whose deaths were reported in the past seven days, though the true number is likely much higher as death records can take more than a week to process.

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About 840 patients with COVID-19 were being treated at BayCare hospitals throughout Tampa Bay.

While that is fewer than the 1,100 at the peak of delta, it comes during what is typically the peak season for hospital admissions when cooler weather exacerbates chronic conditions like respiratory illnesses, said chief operating officer Glenn Waters

“We’ve got the natural increase in volume and the COVID-19 on top of that and it’s making us incredibly busy right now,” he said.

Related: Where to get a free COVID test in Tampa Bay

Adding to the strain is that hospital workers are also becoming infected, Waters said.

That has meant fewer CT scan machines operating in radiology departments when workers there were off sick and the company was forced to shut one urgent care center and rotate the remaining staffers to other centers to keep them open.

Infections among service workers has meant some hospital cafeterias are only providing sandwiches instead of the usual hot food for workers, some of whom work long shifts.

So far, the company has continued to provide elective surgeries during this surge. It, like many other hospital firms, put them on hold to cope with the influx of patients during the peak of the delta surge to preserve the supply of equipment like masks and ventilators.

“We are doing everything we can to continue to provide services,” Waters said. “We’ve consciously made the decision not to put a pause on electives — we realize that has negative consequences for everyone.”

Related: Pinellas jail in lockdown to quell coronavirus spread

Tampa General Hospital is treating 178 infected patients, up 10 from one week ago. Almost 40 of those are in intensive care.

AdventHealth’s West Florida Division reported it was treating 380 patients for COVID-19 at its 11 hospitals in the Tampa Bay region as of Friday. That’s up from 262 one week ago. The highest number of COVID-19 patients those facilities treated during the delta variant surge last summer was about 650.

Starting Monday, the company will restrict patients to one visitor per day at six hospitals in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties in an attempt to limit the spread of the omicron variant.

• • •

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.

• • •

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.

• • •

More coronavirus coverage

OMICRON VARIANT: Omicron changed what we know about COVID. Here’s the latest on how the infectious COVID-19 variant affects masks, vaccines, boosters and quarantining.

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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