The Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners received its first Covid update of the new year Tuesday, spurred by the continued transmission of the highly-contagious Omicron variant throughout the region.
Dr. Ulyee Choe, Director of the Florida Department of Health (DOH) in Pinellas County, called the Omicron variant a “trickier bug” due to its contagiousness and ability to evade immune responses. While Omicron is more transmissible than previous variants, Choe said there is a little bit of good news in that it appears to be less severe.
Choe told the commissioners that if the variant follows models from across the world, Pinellas County should continue to see a sharp increase before the number of cases falls dramatically. While hope is on the horizon, Choe said Omicron is still disrupting the county’s health systems and public and private sectors.
“Given the number of people out due to sickness,” explained Choe. “As well as taking care of loved ones.”
Choe said Pinellas is witnessing a recent spike in cases, with over 11,000 cases reported last week. For comparison, Choe said only 573 cases were recorded about three weeks ago.
The percentage of county residents testing positive has also spiked in the last three to four weeks, said Choe, jumping from 2.8% to 25.6%. Choe added that positive cases are most prevalent in the 20 to 29 age group.
Despite Omicron appearing less severe, Choe said the number of hospitalizations has also risen. Following a Monday conference call with area health officials, he said it appears that 450 to 500 residents are currently receiving medical care for Covid.
“It also appeared that the majority are unvaccinated,” said Choe. “Especially if you go to the intensive care, and those that are intubated.”
Choe said another pattern in hospitals has emerged – 25% to 40% of cases were incidental. He explained this as people hospitalized for various reasons other than Covid and later tested positive through the screening process. He said that is not surprising due to the prevalence of the virus in the community.
“The biggest issue they’ve reported is the staffing challenges,” said Choe. “Which has really been an ongoing issue throughout the pandemic.”
Choe said a combination of high turnover rates due to Covid-related stress, and the rise in infections, are responsible for the staffing shortages. He added that emergency call volumes and wait times have also increased, but not nearly to the level caused by the Delta variant in 2021. Choe cautioned that could change as the county reaches its peak transmission level, which may happen sooner rather than later.
“There have been a number of models out there that do show it may peak as early as sometime this week or until the end of the month,” said Choe. “I’m hopeful that we’ll be peaking here shortly.”
While Omicron has proven to be transmissible among the vaccinated, Choe reiterated that the message remains the same, and the DOH encourages vaccinations to prevent more serious outcomes. Choe relayed that 62% of Pinellas County is vaccinated, and about 40% of the population has received booster shots.
Commissioner Dave Eggers posed the first question from the board to Choe, asking the amount of cold and flu cases the county has noticed.
“It seems like no matter what is happening to people, they feel that immediately it’s Omicron,” said Eggers. “Are we seeing upticks in flu, are normal colds coming back?”
Choe replied that the DOH employs a virus surveillance unit, and it did see an uptick in the rhinovirus – the main cause of the common cold – a few months ago. He said flu cases remain low, and DOH has not seen a recent increase in either illness. Choe added that flu season is variable in Florida and can peak anytime in January or February.
Eggers then asked Choe to describe Omicron’s primary symptoms, to which Choe replied are usually mild upper-respiratory issues. These include a sore throat, runny nose and congestion, compared to previous variants that caused more lung issues. Eggers said the symptoms sound similar to a cold and asked about the county’s testing capabilities.
“With this particular flu – I call it flu, cold, virus – it seems like when people get a symptom, the first thing they want to do is get a test,” said Eggers. “And they can’t seem to find it.”
Choe called the testing situation around the state and nation challenging. He said at-home tests are in short supply and encouraged people to visit the county sites and pharmacies that offer tests, such as CVS and Walgreens.
Choe relayed that state-issued guidance recommends those without symptoms refrain from testing, and the CDC recommends waiting around five days following exposure to allow for an incubation period.