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Leon County responds as Omicron cases rise

A nurse at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital is in full PPE, including a blue grown, an aqua N-95 face mask, and a face shield. Her mask and shield have her name, nurse Gina, written on them.
Dave Barfield, Lonely Fox Photography
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via Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare
Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare has reactivated its COVID team in preparation for another surge of cases, but so far officials say most of the coronavirus volume is in the ER, not inpatient beds.

Coronavirus cases are rising throughout the state of Florida. In Leon County, leaders are urging continued mitigation including masking, vaccinations and testing.

Florida Department of health data shows more than 4,000 new coronavirus cases last week and County Health Officer Claudia Blackburn expects to see that grow.

"What is causing this dramatic increase? Well as I think everybody knows, the assumption is that it is Omicron," Blackburn says.

She cautions more data is needed before health experts can get a broad understanding of the Omicron variant, but says so far, the virus seems to spread more easily than other variants of the coronavirus while causing less severe illness. Capital Regional Medical Center CEO, Alan Keesee says that’s what his doctors are seeing too.

“Currently we’re at about 20% of the peak that we saw in August in our current census with COVID patients—so significantly less than where we’ve been,” Keesee says.

But Keese notes many people are still coming to the emergency room for testing and treatment. Mark O’Bryant with Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare says that’s happening at TMH as well.

Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare officials say TMH was treating 35 coronavirus patients as of Tuesday morning. About 45% of the people currently in the hospital who have tested positive for COVID-19 are there specifically for coronavirus treatment. About 55% sought hospital treatment for something else and happened to also test positive for the virus. The majority of the people requiring coronavirus treatment at TMH are unvaccinated.

“The volume is not so much what we’re seeing in our hospitals and inpatients beds but really the volume is what we’re seeing in our emergency rooms," O'Bryant says. "People are using them as a default access point. And I’m glad to hear there is an expansion of testing because that’s what’s really needed. People are coming here to be tested, because they’re not necessarily being admitted, but they are being tested and it is clogging up our services for those people who truly do need emergency services."

County leaders say testing sites have seen long lines as demand has increased following the holidays. They’re working to mitigate that by hosting pop-up testing sites and increasing capacity at the current sites. Locations can be founding use a site map on the county's website. Appointments are encouraged.

Bond Community Health Center CEO, Doctor Temple Robinson, says testing is an important part of mitigating the spread of the virus.

"So I'm encouraging everyone, the only way we can beat this is to test, test, if you're positive isolate and for everyone else get vaccinated."

Health experts are also encouraging residents to continue good hand hygiene and wear masks—especially N95 or KN95 masks. Robinson cautions just because the Omicron variant appears to be less severe for many, doesn't mean it won't be deadly for some.

"I try to remind people that Costco and Walmart, they have lower prices. But they can make a profit because they deal in volume. And though Omicron is widespread, if you have enough Omicron, when you start talking about the volume of virus in the area—sooner or later it's going to make it's profit and it's profit unfortunately is going to be hospitalizations and death."

Meanwhile Gov. Ron DeSantis and State Surgeon General Joseph Ladadpo are sending a different message. During a press conference Monday Ladapo said he thinks it's time for people to "unwind" the thought process that the coronavirus is "determining the boundaries and constraints and possibilities of life.”