Hillsborough COVID-19 spike caused by variants, virus ‘fatigue’

C.T. Bowen, Tampa Bay Times
·4 min read

TAMPA — The rise in Hillsborough County’s COVID-19 cases likely is attributable to variants of the coronavirus combined with a relaxed public attitude toward face masks and social distancing, a public health expert said Wednesday.

Some Hillsborough County commissioners admitted concern at the recent rise.

The percentage of positive tests results for the coronavirus in Hillsborough County’s is 10.7, above the statewide average of 8. That percentage makes Hillsborough one of nine counties with a double-digit positivity rate.

The county added more than 6,600 cases over the past two weeks, according to Florida Health Department figures. The daily increases of approximately 500 cases is 60 percent higher than four weeks ago. And the number of people hospitalized in Hillsborough stood at 265 patients as of 9 a.m. Wednesday, compared to 198 on March 22.

“We are seeing a genuine true increase in community spread of the virus,” said Dr. Jason Salemi, associate professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health.

Salemi, briefing Hillsborough County commissioners Wednesday, said the uptick cannot be explained by an increase in testing nor by the theory that only sick people are seeking diagnostic tests because of the availability of the COVID-19 vaccines.

“Over the past four weeks, the increase in new infections has outpaced any recent increases in the viral testing,” he said.

Estimates show that two-thirds of Florida’s new cases involve easier-to-transmit variants of the coronavirus, Salemi said.

Meanwhile, half the county’s population, age 16 and older, is expected to be vaccinated by the end of May , according to current projections.

The task at hand, Salemi said, is to remove any barriers preventing people from getting vaccinated and to “bear down in mitigation efforts because when you couple relaxed mitigation with the increased prevalence of these variants, it’s likely this is not only why we are seeing increases in cases in the past four weeks, but also increases in hospitalizations.”

Commissioner Harry Cohen wondered why the infection rate increased when it appeared the public abided by the county’s facial covering rules.

“A lot of people are doing the right things, but I also think there is a massive amount of COVID fatigue,” Salemi said. “I think there is a relaxation, collectively, on the mitigation effort.”

Cohen didn’t disagree.

“We just have to stick with the message which is that we’ve got to keep this up a little bit longer,” he said.

“I know everyone is tired. We’re all tired of it. Everybody is tired of it....If we don’t sort of double down on our efforts and wear masks and observe social distancing, regardless of whether or not you’ve been vaccinated. we’re just going to get to the point to be able to lift these things.”

Earlier in the meeting, a member of the public, Cortland Cooper, asked the commission to relax its face mask mandate because he said had medical issues preventing him from breathing comfortably while wearing a face covering. He also said he was denied entrance to a mall because he was not wearing a face mask.

After Salemi’s presentation, however, the commission voted to extend its emergency order, which includes its face covering rules, for another week.

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