For the past two years, COVID-19 has surged in Tampa Bay during the holidays.
Cases soared as the omicron variant took center stage almost 12 months ago. Deaths did, too. Long lines of pandemic-weary residents snaked through Al Lopez Park in Tampa, eager to get tested. Some fainted while waiting. The virus disrupted family traditions, strained hospitals and infected thousands of people.
But between now and late January, will another wave of cases and fatalities inundate the region after people celebrate the holidays?
Experts are cautiously optimistic that while an uptick in infections is likely, a devastating surge of illness won’t occur. That’s because the widespread, population-level immunity built up by prior infections and vaccinations is much higher now than it was previously, which will help blunt severe cases in the coming weeks, said William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.
However, the anemic uptake of updated booster shots across Florida and the rest of the country is alarming and could lead to a COVID-19 spike that’s worse than anticipated, even if it’s not as bad as prior surges, said Jason Salemi, a University of South Florida epidemiologist.
And while the virus may not be as concerning as it once was, other respiratory illnesses are widely circulating.
Here’s what to know about COVID-19 in Tampa Bay.
What’s happening with the latest subvariants?
Experts warn that the swarm of new omicron subvariants circulating in the U.S. and in Florida — BQ.1, BQ.1.1 — will cause problems for those with weakened immune systems. The fast spreading subvariants, which dodge the body’s immune response, account for nearly half of new cases in the U.S., according to federal estimates.
Evusheld, a monoclonal antibody treatment prescribed to immunocompromised people to help protect them against the virus, is likely ineffective against the subvariants — a major blow to those at high risk for COVID-19 complications.
How many people are getting the updated vaccines?
The latest boosters, which are called bivalent vaccines because they target both the original COVID-19 strain and omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5, were rolled out to adults and teens in early September, then authorized for children last month.
So far, only 7% of Floridians ages 5 and up have received the new boosters, which is below the national rate of 11%. And just 20% of Florida seniors have gotten the shot, which is the fourth-lowest rate of any state in the U.S. The Tampa Bay Times filed a public records request on Nov. 7 seeking county-specific data on bivalent boosters from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the federal agency has not provided the information.
The Florida Department of Health didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether it’s doing anything to encourage boosters, especially among seniors, who are the most susceptible to the virus. Since the pandemic began, residents 65 and up have accounted for 15% of cases statewide but over three quarters of deaths, according to data released by the department.
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Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna say the new vaccines boost the virus-fighting antibodies that target BA.5, a once-dominant subvariant that now accounts for just 24% of recent cases in the U.S. But it’s unclear how effective the shots are against BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, which are quickly taking over.
Still, experts say people should get boosted because the shots will “almost certainly” offer some protection against the latest subvariants, according to Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden.
“The extent to which BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 are going to do any damage in the winter months ... a lot of that story has to do with the bivalent booster uptake,” Salemi said.
He noted that in western Europe — which has been a bellwether for future COVID-19 surges in the U.S. — BQ.1.1 sparked an increase in cases across France, but the uptick quickly subsided without a deluge of hospitalizations.
That’s promising news for Americans, but “you never know if that completely extrapolates to what we’re going to see here,” Salemi said. France has a higher booster rate than the U.S.
Regardless, he said, widespread immunity will help blunt the subvariants’ effects.
How common is COVID-19 right now?
At the moment, the virus is not a major concern for area medical centers, but they’re closely watching other respiratory illnesses. COVID-19 positivity rates have increased in recent weeks at the 15-hospital BayCare Health System, but not substantially. Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties are at a low risk for the virus, according to federal health officials.
“We’re not seeing a lot of COVID right now,” said Peggy Duggan, chief medical officer at Tampa General Hospital, which earlier this month was treating only 15 people with the virus. Most of the patients were admitted for other reasons and happened to test positive.
On Nov. 17, there were only two COVID-19 patients at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, according to a spokesperson.
Statewide, weekly cases have mostly increased since late October, with 11,828 recorded between Nov. 9 and Nov. 16, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a 4% drop from the week prior but probably an undercount because many people use at-home tests and don’t report their results to health authorities. (Hospitalizations and deaths have remained steady, with an average of 178 new admissions per day and 26 fatalities per day. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been almost 83,000 COVID-19 deaths in Florida.)
In the coming weeks, Duggan said she doesn’t expect hospitalizations to break the records set last summer when the delta variant hit Florida, forcing medical facilities to suspend elective surgeries so they could free up beds for seriously ill patients.
But nurses and doctors face a new challenge in the U.S.: an early flu season coupled with a spike in respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, a common infection of the lungs and breathing passages that causes symptoms resembling a cold.
Many young children weren’t exposed to RSV during the pandemic, possibly contributing to the increase in cases now as COVID-19 precautions end.
All Children’s has recorded high levels of RSV since May, which is unusual, said Allison Messina, chief of the hospital’s division of infectious disease.
And BayCare is grappling with a rise in influenza cases, said chief quality officer Laura Arline.
Hospital leaders said Tampa Bay residents should consider wearing masks to help curb the spread of the respiratory illnesses.
“We already see flu and RSV, at least in the Southeast, straining aspects of our health care system,” Schaffner said. “And if COVID were to pick up in any notable way, we would once again see facilities and personnel stretched to their capacity.”