5 things to know about Tampa Bay’s COVID-19 spike

Ella Castle

COVID-19 is here to stay, and Tampa Bay is again weathering a winter uptick of the pathogen. While mask mandates and other restrictions are long gone, experts say there are simple ways to protect vulnerable residents. Here are five things to know about COVID-19′s continued spread across the region and […]

COVID-19 is here to stay, and Tampa Bay is again weathering a winter uptick of the pathogen.

While mask mandates and other restrictions are long gone, experts say there are simple ways to protect vulnerable residents.

Here are five things to know about COVID-19′s continued spread across the region and the rest of Florida.

1. Hospitalizations have spiked, though not like previous waves

The number of people admitted to hospitals with COVID-19 has risen, but not as dramatically as earlier surges.

The 16-hospital BayCare Health System was treating roughly 150 virus patients in mid-January, said chief quality officer Laura Arline. That’s a more than 300% spike from 36 patients in early December.

But during the delta variant surge in summer 2021, BayCare peaked with around 1,400 COVID-19 patients.

“Even though we have increased like (what) typically happens this time of year,” said University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi, “our numbers are so much lower than they have been.”

Salemi attributed the trend to prior vaccinations and infections, which have built up immunity levels.

Statewide, more than 2,000 people with COVID-19 were admitted to hospitals during the week ending Jan. 13, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. By contrast, over 14,500 hospitalizations were reported in a single week during the 2022 omicron surge.

On average, up to 75% of COVID-19 patients at BayCare are 65 or older, Arline said.

Common underlying health conditions among those hospitalized include obesity, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, she said.

COVID-19 is now mild to moderate for most people, she said.

2. Virus concentrations in sewage remain high

Three wastewater facilities in Pinellas County reported high virus concentrations as of Jan. 22, according to WastewaterSCAN, a Stanford University-based project.

Researchers use sewage to monitor COVID-19 trends because official case counts have become unreliable. Many people don’t report their at-home testing results to health authorities.

3. Few people are staying up to date with vaccines

Federal health officials recommended new Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines in mid-September to better target virus variants.

But roughly 85% of Florida adults are behind on their shots, and most kids are, too, according to federal estimates.

“The community,” Arline said, “I guess is tired.”

The state has recorded more than 1,300 COVID-19 deaths since authorities started pushing the latest vaccines.

4. Long-term virus effects are still a danger

The debilitating condition known as “long COVID” is a major issue, Arline said. Up to 23 million Americans have developed the ailment, federal estimates show.

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“To not have your symptoms go away for months or even years is a big deal,” she said.

Scientists are working to better understand long COVID, which is estimated to occur in up to 20% of cases.

5. There are easy ways to protect the community

Tampa Bay residents living or working with immunocompromised individuals or those with significant health problems should get vaccinated, Arline said.

If someone feels ill, they should stay home. But if they must go out, they should wear a mask, Arline said.

Get a test if exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, she added. However, if initially “negative” and still sick, take another test about two days later.

The medicine Paxlovid is available to people infected and at high risk of severe disease, Arline said. It’s free via a patient assistance program for the uninsured and those with Medicaid or Medicare.

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