Between flu, allergies and the COVID-19 omicron variety, respiratory symptoms are having a field day in Florida, and the effects are being felt everywhere from hospital systems to drug stores.
During the current Omicron surge, mild COVID-19 cases are more common than they used to be. This makes it more difficult to tell the difference between the virus and a cold or allergies.
Experts like Dr. Timothy Hendrix, senior medical director of AdventHealth Centers Care, is urging people with mild symptoms to assume they are infected with COVID-19.
“Right now we’re seeing such a high rate of transmission within our community and finding so many people who didn’t think they had COVID, and indeed they did,” he said.
The top five symptoms reported during both the delta and omicron waves are in order: runny nose, headache, fatigue, sneezing and sore throat, according to a December study of data from more than four million participants by researchers at health sciences company ZOE and King’s College London in the United Kingdom.
If someone has an itchy throat or eyes, it’s probably an allergy. If not, all those common COVID-19 symptoms show up with a cold, making it impossible to differentiate without testing, according to the Mayo Clinic website.
People were also less likely to report a loss of taste and smell in the Omicron peak, the ZOE study found. Hendrix notices this in his patients.
“What worries me is people think they’re coughing or have a runny nose, and ‘Well, I still smell good so it mustn’t be COVID-19,’ which would be wrong,” Hendrix said.
With so many common symptoms coming from all directions, medications are flying off the shelves.
Cough suppressants, especially in liquid form, are hard to come by at Umatilla Drug Store, even though the pharmacy has met its needs, owner and pharmacist Richard Greer said.
“Almost all of the allergy triggers for humans come into play now,” Greer told Orlando Sentinel in a phone interview. “We see a lot of allergies, a lot of chest congestion.”
National chains are also under pressure for resources; both CVS and Publix said they are seeing increased demand for cold and cough products.
“It’s also cold and flu season, so there may be extra demand this time of year,” said Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous.
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On the healthcare side, hospitals are filling up with critically ill patients, Dr. Vincent Hsu, executive director of infection prevention and epidemiologist at AdventHealth Central Florida, said at a news conference last Wednesday.
“It is still a very serious virus to be reckoned with. It’s not a common cold,” Hsu said.
Growing evidence from animal studies suggests that omicron may be milder because it is less likely to infect lung cells than previous variants, according to a summary published in Nature on Jan. 5. However, Omicron is still dangerous.
According to Tuesday data from the Department of Health and Human Services, the number of hospitalizations in Florida with COVID-19 increased 57% to 13,551 during the week of January 3 to 9.
Omicron may also appear less severe than previous variants because more people have been vaccinated, said Tom Hladish, a research scientist in the University of Florida Department of Biology. More research is needed.
“I think the best explanation right now is that it’s milder because a lot of people have immunity,” he said.