Joe Pepe

Joe Pepe, director of the Florida Department of Health for Charlotte County

MURDOCK — Hospitalizations have shot up for COVID-19 in Charlotte County, but there have been no deaths in several weeks, Department of Health Director Joe Pepe told the County Commission on Tuesday.

Case numbers, however, are now exceeding the last surge in late summer. The CDC reports 1,600 locally in the week ending Jan. 9, up 148% from the week before.

COVID case numbers for Charlotte County from Jan. 2021 ending Jan. 9, 2022

Charlotte County COVID cases reach the highest point at present (seen farthest right) compared to summer surge (seen in the middle right of the chart.) Date is along the bottom of the graph and number of cases is on the left vertical.

A total of 65 people are hospitalized with COVID in local hospitals at the moment, Pepe said, with nine on ventilators. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, that’s up 83% from the number hospitalized in Charlotte County the week before, but still below hospitalization levels during the county’s summer surge.

Hospitalization numbers for Charlotte County from Jan. 2021 to Jan. 2022

COVID hospitalizations are going up (far right) but not as high as the late summer surge here in Charlotte County (middle of chart). The dates are on the bottom of the chart and the number of hospitalizations are along the left vertical

Some of those hospitalized with COVID came in for other reasons, Pepe said.

He acknowledged the current debate on how hospitals report COVID admissions to include people found to have COVID after admission. But most COVID patients in this county have been admitted because of the effects of COVID, he said. Those admitted have other health issues making them vulnerable to COVID, he said.

In an online and in-house interview, Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s Dr. Manuel Gordillo echoed the same assessment, that most patients listed as COVID patients at that large hospital are hospitalized for COVID, not just with COVID.

The phenomenon of hospitals discovering more of their patients having COVID is probably due to the omicron variant being more transmissible than the other variants. It’s also less severe, Gordillo said. People worldwide are testing positive without knowing they are sick.

Gordillo also said most of the cases in Florida are now of the new omicron genetic variation, not delta.

The rescue therapy by Regeneron reportedly does not work well against omicron, Gordillo said. Labs in Tampa and Miami are reporting 95% omicron and 5% unknown variants that will probably disappear, Gordillo said. Some parts of the country such as the Midwest are still dealing with delta, he said.

In Charlotte County, however, delta is still the dominant strain, epidemiologists have told Pepe. Health care professionals suspected delta as dominate due to patient experience and positive response to the Regeneron therapy at Tringali Park in Englewood, Pepe said.

Charlotte County is filled with seasonal residents arriving from the Midwest, where delta is still prevalent. Omicron will take over locally at some point, he said.

Commissioner Stephen R. Deutsch asked if the effects of COVID now are more like the seasonal flu.

“Most of us accepted the flu and took it for granted,” Deutsch said, noting the annual death toll from that virus.

COVID is not comparable to flu, Pepe said, in part because it is far more transmissible.

Demand for testing continues to outstrip supply nationwide. Gordillo and Pepe both said testing protocols are evolving due to the shortage. Gordillo said his advice changed in recent weeks. To preserve the supply for those in higher need, he now recommends testing only if someone has symptoms or needs a test to return to work.

Pepe said the most sensitive tests are not helpful for return-to-work testing, because someone who has been sick but is no longer contagious may test positive for weeks on the PCR tests. That’s because the PCR tests pick up dead viral particles.

Gordillo said the names for the tests are misleading. The most sensitive test, PCR, comes in both slow and rapid forms. Antigen tests are the easiest to administer, but may be less accurate. Someone who has COVID symptoms but tests negative on an antigen test should probably repeat the test 25-36 hours later, he said.

Of the recommended quarantine shortened by the CDC from 10 to five days, Gordillo called it a compromise designed to keep the country’s essential service intact. He said 80% of people are not contagious after five days, he said, so the CDC added the recommendation of wearing a high quality mask for days 5-10.

But if you plan to visit anyone with a compromised immune system, including newborn babies, before 10 days are up, Gordillo said, “don’t do it … you should wait longer.”

Don’t lose faith, Gordillo told the public. The world has improved its ability to handle respiratory viruses. Highly effective new therapies are on the way, although still not available, he said.

And if you are not vaccinated, he said, the virus will find you first.

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