Omicron variant of COVID-19 likely already in Florida, Tampa Bay doctors and researchers believe

8 On Your Side

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Despite all the unknowns about the new COVID-19 omicron variant, officials are taking no chances.

The new COVID-19 variant that may be more transmissible and less susceptible to existing vaccines, has now been identified in 20 countries. Tampa Bay area doctors and researchers tell 8 On Your Side omicron is likely already here in Florida.

Four U.S. airports – including Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson International, John F. Kennedy New York, Newark and San Francisco – are already expanding virus surveillance to detect the new variant. As the CDC expands surveillance at major airports, officials here in Tampa Bay are also conducting high amounts of surveillance

“The variant is likely here,” said Tampa General Hospital’s Dr. Jason Wilson.

Tampa General is conducting genetic sequencing on COVID samples.

At this exact moment, omicron has not been identified in the U.S. or in Florida. But officials believe it’s just a matter of time.

“I think the public should recognize that almost two years into this pandemic now, we’re pretty good at this,” Dr. Wilson said.

The next few weeks will be critical to understanding Omicron.

However, initial data shows, in populations where it circulates, it rapidly overtakes delta.

“I think it’s really important here to just pause for a minute and recognize the vaccines are still very likely to work very well,” said Dr. Wilson.

Gov. Ron DeSantis answered a reporter’s question about the new variant during a news conference in Orlando on Monday.

“Let me just say in Florida, we will not let them lock you down. We will not let them take your jobs. We will not let them harm your businesses. We will not let them close your schools. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” he said. “The lockdowns didn’t stop COVID, forced masking. They said last year would end the pandemic if 80% were masked, many more than that were wearing masks and it hasn’t worked. They said you could get COVID off of surfaces, which isn’t true. They’ve not been honest about the origins of the virus and they haven’t been forthright about natural immunity.”

Right now, we have low case numbers and positivity in the Tampa Bay area. So Dr. Wilson says you’re safe gathering with family during the holidays and flying, especially if you’re vaccinated and boosted.

“We’ve got to be patient with recognizing that things may change rapidly, we may have to scale up and scale back and I know that’s frustrating going into another holiday season,” said Dr. Wilson.

Regeneron says its COVID antibody treatment might be less effective against omicron.

Meanwhile, vaccine makers say they’re confident they can tweak the shots for this new variant.

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