After over two years of lockdowns, emergency orders, mask mandates, loss, grief, fear and uncertainty, is the pandemic finally coming to an end in Tampa Bay?
Three months after the highly infectious but relatively less potent Omicron variant began to sweep over the area, the region is receiving good news in the ongoing battle against Covid-19. A recently published study by Moffit Cancer Center shows previous infection rates – which provide immunity – are much higher than officially reported. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest update last week, the entirety of Tampa Bay and its surrounding counties are now listed as having a “low” Covid-19 community level.
The CDC classifies community levels as low, medium or high based on hospital admissions, the current number of inpatients and new Covid cases. According to the New York Times Daily Tracker, Pinellas County averages 115 new daily cases – or just 12 per 100,000 people. That represents a 39% decrease over the last 14 days, and hospitalizations, at just seven per 100,000 residents, are down 53% over two weeks.
Adding to the optimism, Hillsborough County shut down its last public testing location at the West Tampa Community Center Wednesday, although private testing locations remain available. After two years and five days, on Thursday Hillsborough will also end its State of Emergency Order, which allowed the county to require masking and close businesses throughout the peak of the pandemic.
Dr. John Greene, Chair of Infectious Diseases for the Moffit center in Tampa, told the Catalyst that Covid is not over; instead, the question is what the virus looks like moving forward.
“One camp, which I’m in, believes it’s over in the sense that these big waves that were coming and causing massive societal disruptions are over,” he said. “Because the overall immunity of the United States, for example, is quite high with either infection giving immunity or vaccinations.”
The New York Times tracker shows that 66% of Pinellas residents are fully vaccinated.
Greene pointed to his colleague’s recently published serological study showing that the actual number of Hillsborough residents with Covid antibodies was twice the amount that the Health Department has reported as infected. He said this proves that local immunity is much higher than many health officials reported.
“The immunity is so high that for another infection to occur on a large scale would require a massive genetic shift … or a big mutation,” he said.
Greene warned other variants are now circulating that may have changed enough to evade immune responses. He said the other faction of doctors and researchers believe another big wave of infections could occur due to people letting their guard down. The BA.2 sub-lineage of the Omicron variant rapidly spreading through China and Hong Kong now makes up nearly a quarter of new U.S. Covid infections, the CDC estimated Tuesday.
BA.2 is highly transmissible, said Greene, but probably not more dangerous. He did note the sub-variant has proved more adept at evading current immunity levels. While some warn a BA.2 outbreak could happen as soon as April, Greene believes it would likely take place in the winter – if at all.
Greene relayed that some health officials also worry about DeltaCron, a hybrid strain of the two most serious variants. Greene remains optimistic, however, that mitigating new strains will become a minor annual event, similar to the flu.
“And with all that, those two things going on, you still have enough immunity to prevent another big outbreak,” he said. “I’m in the camp that says it’ll occur every year, and you’ll have to get a vaccine to try to match the current strain and boost your immunity.
“And yes, natural immunity with your own infection is better than vaccine immunity, but it may not be long lasting enough to keep you protected for years …”
Greene said the community’s immune response increased significantly through every wave of Covid, and unfortunately, many in the most susceptible populations have died. Data shows 3,195 Covid deaths in Pinellas County since the pandemic began two years ago.
Greene explained that at some point in every pandemic, the population reaches an equilibrium where genetic resistance and immunity levels prevent widespread hospitalizations and deaths.
“You may get a little blip upwards, but it’s not going to be massive,” he said. “That’s why I say it’s the new post-Covid era … where every year it’ll be like the flu.
“You know, we’re not losing sleep over the flu.”
While some people worry that record-breaking crowds of spring breakers will cause an increase of infections, Greene predicts nothing more than a slight uptick. Any time you get thousands of people close together, he said, especially those with the lowest vaccination rates, it could cause a blip in the community.
However, Greene noted that many sporting events, concerts and other large gatherings have failed to cause any significant increase in infection rates. He put the probability of an uptick following spring break at about 20-30%.
“But that means a 70% chance you won’t even feel it,” he added.