Here’s how to stay safe as RSV, flu, and COVID spread in Tampa Bay

COVID-19 cases are low in Florida — and deaths remain steady — but scientists warn infections are likely to rise after the holiday season.

Other respiratory illnesses are also on the rise, including the flu.

The Tampa Bay Times asked infectious disease experts and hospital leaders for tips on how area residents can protect themselves and others from the swarm of viruses.

This is what they said.

Related: Will Tampa Bay see a winter COVID spike? Here’s what you need to know.

Be aware of your ‘social bubble’

“It’s unrealistic to think that everyone is going to apply every restriction,” said Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida. People are tired of masks and social distancing.

But even if someone is at low risk for serious COVID-19 complications — a healthy young adult, for example — they should plan their vacation around the dangers others face, Salemi said.

“Perhaps I’m not worried about me personally,” Salemi said, “but I’m definitely worried about the riskier people in my family that I associate with.”

Seniors, individuals with underlying conditions such as heart or lung disease, and those with weakened immune systems are more likely to become seriously ill from cases of COVID-19, flu, and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, a common infection that causes symptoms similar to a cold.

Young children are also susceptible to flu and RSV complications.

“Just know that your risk tolerance doesn’t stand alone,” Salemi said. “It’s the risk tolerance for you and your social bubble.”

Wear masks…sometimes

Elderly residents and the immunocompromised should consider wearing masks at indoor events, said Laura Arline, chief quality officer for the 15-hospital BayCare Health System.

And everyone should consider wearing them in busy public places, added Allison Messina, chief of the infectious disease division at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.

William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, issued a more urgent warning to people with weakened immune systems: “They should put their masks back on now. They should be thinking, “I’m renting a movie instead of going to a movie.” … They should avoid gatherings of large groups indoors.

Related: Why Most Tampa Bay Hospitals Are Relaxing Mask Rules

Be careful around babies

With RSV peaking, people with respiratory symptoms should avoid babies if they can, wash their hands and wear masks when they’re around, Messina said.

The virus can cause bronchiolitis and pneumonia in young children. Some may be hospitalized for breathing problems. Each year in the US, up to 300 children under age 5 die from RSV

RSV vaccines are in development, but federal regulators have yet to approve them for widespread use.

Test, test, test

Two days before visiting vulnerable relatives for Thanksgiving or other gatherings, do a COVID-19 test at home, Salemi said. Then take one with you on the holiday itself.

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When people develop mild respiratory symptoms, such as a runny nose, “they tend to rationalize” and blame their illness on allergies or a condition that isn’t COVID-19, Arline said. That’s because they don’t want to miss out on family celebrations.

Instead of guessing, she said, get tested.

“You don’t want to bring an accidental gift to a Christmas party and spread COVID everywhere,” Arline said.

Home tests are sold at pharmacies. Those with private health insurance can check for a network or preferred location to buy them without having to pay upfront. If not, submit a claim to have the costs reimbursed. (Be sure to keep the receipt.)

Related: Children’s hospitals in Tampa Bay are reporting an increase in respiratory illness

Celebrate outside

Florida is beautiful in the winter. Gather outside for a family meal (weather permitting), Salemi said. It is safer than being crammed into a small, poorly ventilated room.

Get vaccinated

People should get vaccinated against COVID-19 and flu, said Peggy Duggan, chief medical officer of Tampa General Hospital.

Anyone age 5 and older is eligible for the new Pfizer-BioNTech booster — and those 6 and older can get Moderna’s — as long as it’s been at least two months since their last COVID-19 shot, whether that’s a previous booster was or their initial vaccination. The updated boosters target the original virus strain and two omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5.

Related: What you need to know about COVID vaccine boosters targeting omicron

View the number of cases and sewer data

Many people use COVID-19 tests at home and do not report their results to health authorities. This means that the number of cases are underestimates. But it’s still helpful to monitor them, Salemi said. Residents can get a “broad picture” of virus trends and take precautions when they see the pathogen increasing.

Data collected on virus levels in sewage is also helpful, but not all areas are following suit, Salemi said. Hillsborough and Pinellas counties do.

The Florida Department of Health used to update its pandemic data daily, but now it releases the information every two weeks. That means the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides more up-to-date data on viral spread.

Related: Doctors expect a bad flu season. Here’s what Tampa Bay should know

Find out more

The Tampa Bay Times reports on how people with weakened immune systems are navigating the pandemic. Contact reporter Sam Ogozalek to share your story.

Here’s how to stay safe as RSV, flu, and COVID spread in Tampa Bay

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