TAMPA, Fla. – According to Johns Hopkins University, 1,082,549 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in the U.S. on Jan. 3 - a new record. Dr. Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist and associate professor with the University of South Florida, has monitored cases of the viruses since early in the pandemic. Spectrum Bay News 9 spoke with him about tracking the omicron variant.
- What are we seeing in Tampa Bay when it comes to COVID? The latest COVID-19 situation report from the Florida Department of Health breaks down cases reported in each county during the week of December 24-31. In the Tampa Bay area, Citrus County saw 375 new cases reported, Hernando reported 881, Hillsborough was at 15,027, Manatee reported 2,805, Pasco saw 3,372, Pinellas reported 6,615, and Polk saw 7,524. "It's pretty much what we're seeing all across the state," Salemi said. "To give you that statewide overview, we've had over 380,000 cases in the past seven days alone. That's over 54,000 cases every single day. Just to put that in perspective, during the peak of our delta surge, we were just under 22,000 cases a day. So, we are seeing more than 30,000 cases every single day more than the peak of the delta surge. So, even though it's really those three big counties in southeast Florida - Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach - that have seen the most pronounced increases, Hillsborough County alone has seen four, five, six times the number of cases in just the past few weeks alone, and same thing for Pinellas County, Polk County."
- Is it more challenging to track omicron than past variants? Salemi said tracking the number of true infections has always been challenging for a number of reasons, including the fact that people with asymptomatic cases might never get tested, and therefore never know they have the virus. "There's nothing necessarily new about the omicron surge, but it seems like it's a little bit more pronounced just because of how widespread the infections are across our communities. You would imagine that the overwhelming proportion of those are maybe asymptomatic individuals, and we never learned about them to then add on top of that."
- When could omicron peak? "I've seen a lot of variation in terms of the modeling from a lot of different organizations - the University of Florida, here at the University of South Florida, really across the country. I would say most of them are revising their estimates," Salemi said. According to him, the revisions may come because of the more rapid than expected spread of omicron. Salemi said some of the latest projections show omicron peaking sometime this month, possibly as soon as next week.
- How fast will cases decline? South Africa's omicron-fueled COVID cases peaked late last month, then quickly decreased afterwards. "Likely before the end of this month, we'll see the peak," said Salemi. "Then, if the story from South Africa and the UK are indicative of what's going to happen in the United States, yes, I would expected a rapid deceleration in the number of cases we're seeing daily."
- What's next? Salemi said it's important to remain vigilant, despite reports that omicron seems to produce less severe illness than other variants. "I don't want that to give people the false impression that it's not still putting people in the hospital, that it's not killing people. It can and will. These variants, no matter what its Greek name is, they're very good at finding the most vulnerable people in our communities," Salemi said. "So, even though this could spread through very quickly and start to come down, and even though I think we got lucky with a little bit less severity, omicron can still do and is damage across the country."