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Omicron is affecting Florida differently than delta. A USF Health expert explains why.

 Thousands of people waited hours to get COVID-19 tests in Tampa on Friday.
City of Tampa
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Thousands of people waited hours to get COVID-19 tests in Tampa on Friday.

Florida has been averaging more than 54,000 new coronavirus cases a day for the past week, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest update on Tuesday.

That's more than double the daily average the state saw during the peak of its delta surge last summer.

Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist with the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health, said the latest daily average is also about 25 times higher than what Florida was reporting just a month ago.

Coronavirus hospitalizations have increased dramatically, up to 6,914, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services update on Tuesday afternoon. But they are nowhere near as high as they were during the height of delta.

It’s still unclear exactly when the omicron surge will peak or how high hospitalizations will increase in the coming weeks, but Salemi said the omicron surge in Florida is different than the delta surge.

He talked with Health News Florida reporter Stephanie Colombini about why.

How do these surges compare so far?

During the delta surge, the increase in hospitalizations was strongly correlated with the increasing cases. And during the delta surge, we had less than 22,000 cases per day at our peak. But we had over 17,000 hospitalized patients about a week after the peak in cases, and of course, just a horrific death toll with more than 400 people dying each day from COVID-19 at our peak.

You know, we were much less immunologically naïve prior to the delta surge. And what I mean by that is fewer people were vaccinated. Seniors vaccinated early on we're starting to have some waning immunity that we know can happen if you don't get a booster shot. We had fewer people that had protection from a prior infection.

Omicron seems to have less intrinsic severity. Just biologically, it seems less likely to infiltrate your lower respiratory tract where it can tend to do the most damage. And you know, some recent data out of the UK [United Kingdom] suggested that people were half as likely to be hospitalized with omicron than they were with delta.

Also, during this most recent omicron surge, we now have a lot more people with improved ability to fight against severe illness from omicron.

So it seems like we’ve definitely got a rough month ahead, but maybe not as bad as it could be?

Yeah, I think first of all, there are a number of things to be optimistic about looking forward. One of those things is just the lower severity. I think we caught a break that despite omicron’s transmissibility and immune escape capability, it does seem to be milder for biological reasons; we've got a lot more built up immunity.

We've also got more immunity moving forward. Because omicron is infecting so many people, we've got this immunity from the infection that should help to protect people moving forward.

Another thing to be very optimistic about is we've added now two additional drugs to protect people once they're infected. So we've got Molnupiravir from Merck and Paxlovid from Pfizer, both of these antiviral medications can be taken and they reduce the likelihood of hospitalization and death. In fact, Paxlovid decreases the risk of those two outcomes by almost 90%.

So we're getting towards a period hopefully, once we get past this current surge, where we're going to be able to function a little bit more normally – of course, as long as there's not another variant that pops up.

So then why should we take omicron seriously?

First, even if omicron is half as likely to put a person in the hospital compared to delta, if we see two-, three-, four times as many cases in this very short period of time, that could mean that a lot of people are heading to the hospital all at once. And so that's never a good thing for already overburdened medical professionals trying to take care of us.

Second, this spread is going to continue to cause disruptions in the workplace, you know, in schools and businesses. Even if the CDC has an abbreviated timeframe for isolation, now down to five days, if we’re still letting this kind of run rampant, we're going to find people that are missing work either because of isolation or because they've actually gotten ill.

Finally, like we've learned with all of the variants thus far, this virus will continue to find people who are vulnerable in our communities.

I think we're going to continue to see that you know, people who are socioeconomically deprived, people who are immunocompromised, etc. are continuing to bear the disproportionate burden of this infection, even though again, I think we're kind of lucky that on average, it's causing much less severe illness.

Copyright 2022 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7.

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters,WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.