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Jacksonville doctors say a winter COVID surge is possible as an omicron threat looms

President Joe Biden speaks about the COVID-19 variant named omicron, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, in Washington, as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases listens. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Evan Vucci/AP
President Joe Biden speaks about the COVID-19 variant named omicron, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, in Washington, as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases listens. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In Duval County, physicians say they've been anticipating a surge but that could be exacerbated by the omicron variant.

Jacksonville doctors say they've been anticipating a surge in COVID cases this winter that could be exacerbated by the new omicron variant. 

As of Tuesday, no omicron cases have been identified in the U.S. yet, but Jacksonville residents should remain vigilant with mask wearing and social distancing, said Dr. Chirag Patel, assistant chief medical officer at UF Health Jacksonville.

The emergence of omicron comes at a time when many Floridians have shed their masks in public as the threat of the delta variant fades. But now is not the time to grow lackadaisical, Patel said. The World Health Organization says the new variant poses a very high risk based on early research.

"Delta was such a game changer in terms of how severe and how transmissible it was, and with omicon, we're anticipating it's going to be very similar to delta in that regard," Patel said. "Continue to protect yourself in every way possible and continue to protect those around you."

The hospital has been planning for the possibility of a COVID surge in coming weeks, based on region's timeline of a surge last winter and two summer surges.

"We anticipated that we would have a bump in COVID cases as a mini-surge," Patel said. "That demand could be causing a strain on staffing, equipment, medications, etc., and so we are being proactive and remaining prepared, assuming that there will be a surge."

Dr. Shalika Katugaha, system director in infectious diseases for Baptist Health Jacksonville, said the unknowns about omicron could be concerning.

"What we still don't know yet are how transmissible it is, whether it causes more severe disease and whether it can evade vaccines," Katugaha said.

She added that those questions will likely be answered in the next couple weeks and are not a reason to avoid getting vaccinated against COVID.

"Even though there are mutations, you will have some level of protection by getting a vaccine," Katugaha said. "So there's not a reason to not go out there and get the vaccine."

According to the most recently available data, just 59% of eligible Duval County residents are vaccinated against COVID, compared to a statewide rate of 68%. Experts attribute the lagging rates, largely, to widespread misinformation.

Dr. Michael Koren, director of research with the Florida-based ENCORE research group, said a variant like omicron is to be expected.

“Everybody should be reassured that we expect the COVID virus to mutate. Viruses are constantly mutating, and this is not a surprise.” Koren said.

Still, his organization is running local trials for COVID vaccines that could be targeted to specific variants, like omicron.

"The research is trying to get a level of precision in terms of matching the exact vaccine with the exact variant that's in any community at any given time," Koren said. "We don't have any results of those studies yet, but that's exactly the research that's happening here in Jacksonville as we speak."

President Joe Biden said Monday that while travel restrictions imposed on travelers from several southern African nations would slow the entry of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, "it cannot prevent it."

"Sooner or later, we're going to see cases," he said in an address to the American people.

Biden added, "This variant is a cause for concern — not a cause for panic." He emphasized the widespread availability of COVID vaccines.

"I expect the new normal to be everyone ends up getting vaccinated in the booster shot," Biden said. "So we reduce the number of people who aren't protected to such a low degree that we're not seeing the spread of these viruses."

Gov. Ron DeSantis told reporters in Orlando on Monday that he doesn't plan to implement lockdowns if there's another COVID surge.

"Gov. DeSantis will continue to evaluate the evidence and make data-driven decisions," the governor's press secretary Christina Pushaw said in an emailed statement to WJCT. "There is no reason to assume that omicron will evade vaccines, natural immunity, or [monoclonal antibody] treatment. Speculations to this effect are not grounded in evidence."

The CDC expanded its booster recommendations Monday to all adults who are six months out from an initial Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or two months out from an initial Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

According to the CDC's recommendation, "the omicron variant (B.1.1.529) further emphasizes the importance of vaccination, boosters, and prevention efforts."

Copyright 2021 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.

Claire Heddles
Claire joined WJCT as a reporter in August 2021. She was previously the local host of NPR's Morning Edition at WUOT in Knoxville, Tennessee. During her time in East Tennessee, her coverage of the COVID pandemic earned a Public Media Journalists’ Association award for investigative reporting.