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Tampa Entering ‘Exponential Phase’ Of 'Sizeable' Coronavirus Surge, Warns USF Epidemiologist

Dr Edwin Michael, an epidemiologist with USF, holds a mic and wears a mask at an event in Oct
USF College of Public Health
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Dr. Edwin Michael, an epidemiologist with USF Health, speaking at an event in October

Masks and increased social distancing are key measures over the next several months. Any ease-up, and hospitals will be overwhelmed.

Coronavirus cases are beginning a new and concerning phase of growth in the Tampa Bay area, a top epidemiologist said Wednesday, warning that the peak of the pandemic could hit in late January or early February.

"We are currently entering the exponential phase of a sizeable resurgence of the virus in Tampa Bay," said Dr. Edwin Michael, an epidemiologist at USF Health, told the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners Wednesday.

He says the risk is increasing because people are moving around more, interacting more, and aren't being as strict about mask-wearing and social distancing since Florida fully reopened in late September.

In Hillsborough County, coronavirus cases have risen 24 percent in the past two weeks.

Hospitals are currently operating at 75 to 80 percent capacity in the Tampa area.

A slide describing key takeaway messages from Dr. Michael's presentation
Dr. Michael's final slide of his presentation to the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners

Michael said if society relaxes its masking and social distancing even slightly in the coming weeks, Hillsborough County cases will spike dramatically and hospitals will be overwhelmed.

"Even with current social measures, you'll need an extra 1,100 beds to deal with the requirements. If you release, even moderately, it will completely overwhelm the hospital capacity for dealing with COVID cases," he said.

"Vaccines will arrive unfortunately too late to prevent the next wave," Michael said.

The answer, he says, is stricter masking and social distancing until vaccines are fully rolled out in the spring.

A slide showing the sharp rise in cases of coronavirus in the past few weeks
Dr. Michael's slideshow depicts the rise in coronavirus cases in the Tampa area

He urged people to stay vigilant about keeping their distance from others, and wearing masks.

“With the holidays coming, the messages is to families to have nuclear family celebrations, if at all. And then if kids are coming home, they need to be tested.”

Then, if enough people receive the vaccine early next year, the outlook is good for spring, Michael said.

“If we practice social measures alongside vaccinations, over the next few months, we will be able to crush the epidemic itself by the middle to end of April 2021," he said.

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