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COVID is back in Tampa Bay. It never really left | Editorial
Floridians have tools at hand to curb the pandemic.
Ilana Diener holds her son, Hudson, 3, during an appointment for a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine trial in Commack, N.Y. on Nov. 30. Parents hoping to get their youngest children vaccinated against COVID-19 got some encouraging news this week, as drug maker Pfizer announced  that three doses of its vaccines offers strong protection to those under 5. (AP Photo/Emma H. Tobin, File)
Ilana Diener holds her son, Hudson, 3, during an appointment for a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine trial in Commack, N.Y. on Nov. 30. Parents hoping to get their youngest children vaccinated against COVID-19 got some encouraging news this week, as drug maker Pfizer announced that three doses of its vaccines offers strong protection to those under 5. (AP Photo/Emma H. Tobin, File) [ EMMA H. TOBIN | AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published May 25

Americans suffering from COVID-19 fatigue may have put the pandemic in the rearview mirror. But wishful thinking is not smart public health policy — or personal practice. With infections rising again in Florida, and across the Tampa Bay area, residents need to do their part to slow the spread and protect the vulnerable.

The Tampa Bay Times reported Tuesday that Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties are among eight Florida counties that have “high” community levels of COVID-19, according to an analysis of federal pandemic data. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that residents in “high” level communities wear a well-fitting mask in public indoor spaces. The Times report comes as Florida’s average daily COVID-19 cases have jumped 53% in the past week, the state’s largest week-to-week increase since the peak of the omicron wave in January. While hospitalizations increased by over 20% in the same seven-day period, the number of infections and hospitalizations is still relatively low compared to previous waves.

The Times analysis contrasts with the CDC’s continued designation of the Tampa Bay area as a “medium” risk. University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi verified the Times’ calculations and agreed the counties’ COVID-19 data shows they should be classified as “high” risk under the CDC’s own standards. The lesson: Residents need to take their own precautions as the pandemic continues to ping pong and hit communities very differently.

Officials note that the virus is spreading again across Florida with virtually no widespread masking or social distancing policies in place. While the governor and his health department are AWOL, residents still have plenty of protective tools at their disposal. Tests, vaccines and booster shots are widely available. The federal government is offering another round of free at-home COVID-19 test kits to every residential address in the country. This third and latest round provides eight tests per address. The rise in infections should spur more Floridians to get their boosters. Also this week, Pfizer announced that three doses of its COVID-19 vaccine offered strong protection for children younger than 5. The company planned to give the data to U.S. regulators as a step toward enabling the youngest kids to get the shot. The 18 million children under 5 are the only group in the U.S. not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccination. But that could change this summer in what would be a long-awaited victory for preschoolers and parents.

Classes end this week in the public school systems across the Tampa Bay area. That means more Floridians will be piling into cars and planes, and more tourists flocking to the Sunshine State. It’s up to Floridians whether this summer will mark a step forward or a step back in fighting the pandemic. As Salemi, the USF epidemiologist noted, increasing COVID cases “are going to continue to rise until we do something meaningful to block spread.” Or, he added: “Until just a lot of vulnerable people end up in the hospital, which, obviously, nobody wants.” COVID hasn’t released its grip, and more community spread only adds to personal and economic misery. But Floridians have weapons in their arsenal. And we have a self-interest to use them.

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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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