As the dangerous Delta variant continues its worldwide surge, COVID-19 cases in Tampa Bay are spiking as well – and doctors at Tampa General Hospital say you can take simple steps to protect yourself from the disease.
“It’s critical for people to get vaccinated, especially in this moment,” said Tampa General Chief Medical Officer Dr. Peggy Duggan. “What we’re seeing now is a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
Cases of COVID-19 at Tampa General Hospital have risen dramatically over the past three weeks, more than tripling in number and remaining very volatile. These patients are younger as well. During the initial wave of the disease last year, the median age for patients in Tampa General’s Intensive Care Unit was in the mid-70s. Now it’s 42.
More than 80 percent of these patients are unvaccinated.
“The risk of the Delta variant is high, and if you’ve had COVID in the past, you can still get this variant – a common misunderstanding people have – and you can give it to each other,” Duggan added. “It’s such a highly contagious disease – about 60 percent more infectious – that right now we’re seeing whole households get the Delta variant, whereas before one or two people could avoid getting infected.”
Over the past year, older people, people with underlying health conditions, and health care workers have been more likely to get the vaccine. The higher incidence among younger and healthier people now, Duggan explained, is because “they are the last group to get vaccinated and to take it seriously.”
Those who have been fully vaccinated can still become infected, but their symptoms are generally milder and they are less likely to need hospital care. For those who have not been vaccinated, the risks are sharply heightened amid this highly infectious new strain, which was first identified in December 2020, and rapidly became the dominant strain of the virus in India and Great Britain. Likewise, this month Florida made up about 20 percent of new COVID-19 cases in the United States.
“I think humans have a tendency to say, ‘It’s not going to happen to me,’ and when it happens to them it, it can be too late,” said Dr. Seetha Lakshmi, Tampa General’s medical director for the Global Emerging Diseases Institute and assistant professor at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine.
“There is no need for the human suffering and death that I see today – it is so preventable,” Lakshmi said .”It just breaks my heart. The central message is that even though the vaccine might not prevent you from catching the disease, it will prevent you from seeing us in the ICU and losing your life.”
Some parents may have been reluctant to vaccinate their teenagers after hearing about rare reported cases of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, among some teenage boys who received the vaccine. But Lakshmi points to recent data from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) that underscores the clear benefit of the vaccine. In 674 confirmed cases, young males have gotten the condition after the second vaccine dose, but the cases were very mild, no prescription medicine was required (with only Aleve or Advil needed), and no fatalities have resulted. Meanwhile, more than 11 million young adults ages 18 to 24 have been vaccinated in the US.
“ACIP came out and said, ‘Please get the vaccine and this is the reason why: For every million doses of vaccine given to adolescents we prevent 215 admissions, 71 ICU admissions and two deaths in this age group, compared to 56 cases of mild myocarditis,’ ” Lakshmi said. “As an infectious disease doctor, I can tell you that when you let the virus loose and it causes myocarditis, it is way more severe than the vaccine causing myocarditis – to the extent that young people can get heart failure.”
The rise in Delta variant cases has been understandably difficult for some frontline health care workers, who have been thrust back into the physical and emotional whirlwind of caring for COVID patients fighting for their lives. And now they often are faced with a jarring new reality of seeing patients closer to their own ages.
“Our staff is exhausted from the year they’ve been through, and there are some who feel frustrated because this feels avoidable,” Duggan said. “And as a young provider, when you start to look at your patients and they look like you – and it could be you – it does impact you differently. You’re looking at yourself, and it’s tough.”
For both doctors, there is a clear and effective solution: Get vaccinated.
“It’s going to protect you, your family, and the community,” Duggan said. “It’s really imperative that we all take safety precautions that are common sense. In my own practice, for instance, I’ve limited going out and wear a mask when I go to the grocery store. I may be fine, but I still may pass this virus on to someone else – and that’s the last thing I want to do.
“This doesn’t have to last for a long time. If we can continue to take precautions and move the vaccination rate needle, it will really make a difference. We were all looking to be out of this pandemic, but we’re back in it. So we need to take these steps to get us out of harm’s way.”