TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Tampa Mayor Jane Castor held a virtual discussion event with Dr. Charles Lockwood, Senior VP, USF Health and Dean of the Morsani College of Medicine on the current state of affairs regarding COVID-19 in the city of Tampa and surrounding communities. They discussed the latest variant of the virus and how to handle infections and the current levels of severity.

During the speaking event, Castor said masking mandates had not been effective and urged residents to get vaccinated and receive booster shots, or second booster shots, which were “readily available.”

Lockwood talked about the state of COVID-19 in the local community, saying things were more positive than earlier in the pandemic.

“We’re in a really different spot than we were the last time we were together, thank goodness,” Lockwood said. “Each variant that is occurring is a mutation that makes the new variant more transmissible, but less virulent, less severe. That’s how we end up with 25% of colds being from the coronavirus. They start off as SARS-CoV-2, then they end up as the common cold.”

The latest variant of COVID-19 detected is the B.A. 2-12-1. Both Castor and Lockwood joked about how the variants are becoming more difficult to name, before turning the discussion to the current state of affairs for COVID-19 in Tampa and Hillsborough County.

“The bottom line is, it is more transmissible. It is less and less severe with each of these iterations,” Lockwood said. “We’ve got lots of people that are immune. Probably 95% of people in Hillsborough County are immune. Either because they’ve been vaccinated, 70% have been vaccinated, or they’ve gotten infected, or they’ve gotten both. Which is a lot of people. Boy if you’ve been vaccinated and infected, then you’re in great shape. The group that needs to be concerned is the group that hasn’t been vaccinated, but particularly the group that hasn’t been vaccinated that is high risk. And that’s probably the group that needs to be a little weary now, maybe wearing an N95 in public. Nothing to be ashamed of. If you’re at risk and you don’t want to die, that’s a good idea to wear an N95.”

Lockwood said not everyone is wearing a mask, but that people should protect themselves. If the high-risk or immunosuppressed are concerned, they should “not go out.” He said the virus was becoming more like the flu, and that if you’re not immunized and you’re at high-risk, you should be wearing a mask.

Weighing in on the current COVID-19 situation, Castor asked Lockwood about differences between variants. Lockwood said Tampa General Hospital was sequencing the virus and that about “50% of the organisms” are the omicron variant in Hillsborough County, and “the number of the sub-lineage is going up and up and up.” He said it would soon be the dominant strain, but that many people were immune, reducing the impact of the virus compared to the delta strain, or the original version in March 2020.

Castor urged residents to get vaccinated, saying the shots were readily available, and addressed concerns over boosters.

“We’ve gotta let everyone know that the vaccinations are still readily available at a number of pharmacies around the city, at the health center,” Castor said. “They’re available, and also with the boosters, there’s a little bit of confusion on who can get the boosters, we should be in, people should be into the second booster. And that booster is available to everyone at this point.”

Lockwood said if you catch COVID-19, you should let your doctors know because there are “great meds” available to reduce severity after infection.

“Let your doc know so you can get the script,” Lockwood said.

Castor then turned the discussion to masking.

Referring to an article she’d read in the New York Times, Castor said “masking mandates. It just doesn’t work. One, people don’t wear them appropriately, or don’t wear them at all.”

Lockwood said masks work best when two people together are wearing them, particularly N95s, but only if they were worn correctly.

“Masks work best if you have two people wearing an N95 mask. You have reduced the risk dramatically, and you’ve probably fit it, you know, it’s not going to, you’re not wearing it inappropriately. I was watching somebody interviewing somebody on TV at a sports event, and she had it below her nose, so that’s useless.”

Castor joked that it was better than wearing it below the chin instead.

“Very few people are wearing a mask,” Lockwood said. “You walk outside, no one’s wearing a mask.”

He said if half of the people are not wearing masks, and the other half are, but they’re not wearing N95s, it’s “pretty useless.”

Lockwood if you have medical conditions, are at high-risk, or are elderly, you should wear a mask, particularly indoors or in public. If you’re immunosuppressed, “you probably should think twice about going outside or going to an indoor public event.” However, as time goes on, Lockwood said the coronavirus would become more like the common cold.

“It’ll evolve to that,” Lockwood said. “But we’re not there yet.” He reiterated mask wearing would help in the meantime, particularly for those at a higher risk of severity from COVID-19 and said the peaks of the virus would become less severe over time.