All of Southwest Florida remains in a high-transmission zone for COVID-19, according to the CDC.
However, a great deal has changed over the past two years.
Health systems in Southwest Florida have reported far fewer hospitalizations and deaths, which has people wondering whether a corner has been turned in the pandemic.
The omicron BA-5 subvariant is widely spreading and may dodge immunity, but even local healthcare providers recognize something has changed.
“If you go back to 2020, during delta, we were at over almost you know, 50% of the hospital, with an ICU that was at 220%,” said Dr. David Lindner, a pulmonologist at NCH. “Currently, we have none. We have zero patients in the ICU, we have zero patients on ventilators with that. And so it does feel different, it is different.”
Lindner leads the COVID-19 response at NCH.
“Not only have we learned how to handle it better, but you know, we basically have a degree of our population who have immunity,” Lindner said.
Infectious disease specialist Dr. Stephanie Stovall sees much the same thing in Lee Health.
“People aren’t having as severe of a manifestation of COVID as what maybe we were seeing last summer,” Stovall said. “For instance, our ICU utilization, our ventilator utilization is not as high as it was previously. It’s been pretty flat over the last several weeks, even though we are seeing 80 to 100 patients every day admitted to our hospitals.”
Vaccines, boosters, monoclonal antibodies and antivirals have all made a difference.
Along with COVID-19 mutations, coronaviruses tend to weaken over time and become part of the circulating viral illness that include the common cold.
When that happens, it is considered endemic.
Stovall said we are not there yet.
“That endemic kind of vision or endemic description that you think about would be low levels of infection, pretty much around the calendar, if you will. And I don’t think we’re at low levels of infection at this point,” Stovall said.
While the spread remains high, many of the people hospitalized at NCH were admitted for something entirely different.
“There is a sizable group of the people, suffice it to say, who are incidental right now. In fact, sometimes I have people who look at us and go, what do you mean, I have COVID,” Lindner said.
The final phase may be here, or near but high spread creates the opportunity for the virus to change once again.
“It makes me keep my guard up, that future mutations may take us back,” Stovall said.
For the foreseeable future, both health systems expect masking to be required wherever there are patients in hospitals and medical offices.