Tampa Bay has officially — and finally — been classified at “high” risk of COVID-19, federal health officials reported Thursday.
Federal guidelines recommend that all residents, regardless of health status, should wear a well-fitting mask in public indoor spaces in 10 Florida counties including Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco.
The announcement corrects an error that went unchanged for nearly a week — during which Florida recorded more than 64,000 infections.
The Miami Herald reported May 19 that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had identified an error on their website that caused three south Florida counties to appear at “medium” status instead of “high” risk. The correction appeared as a footnote at the bottom of the CDC website.
The Tampa Bay Times reported Monday that the same error also impacted Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, which reached the CDC’s threshold for “high” risk but were still deemed to be at “medium” status, according to the federal COVID-19 warning system.
The CDC data used in that calculation showed zero infections detected in Tampa Bay from May 13-19. But that was incorrect: All three counties had surpassed the 7-day case rate of 200 infections per 100,000 residents to warrant “high” risk, according to state and federal data released May 20.
Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco hit the other mark that determines “high” risk of infection: The region’s hospitals exceeded more than 10 hospital admissions for COVID-19 per 100,000 residents.
A CDC spokesperson said the agency does not update its warning system daily, but instead once a week every Thursday.
Public health experts also criticized the CDC’s warning system — the revamped guidelines were rolled out in February — for relying on COVID-19 hospitalizations, which are a lagging indicator of community transmission. Florida has seen nine straight weeks of rising infections, but it can days or weeks for the infected to become sick enough to need a hospital bed.
Everyone should have returned to wearing a well-fitting mask indoors by now, University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi told the Times on Monday, “but we’re waiting too long until community spread gets too high and we’re waiting for the hospitalization number to trigger (universal masking recommendation).”
The other counties with “high” COVID-19 levels are Polk, Sarasota, Alachua, Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. Another 19 counties have “medium” levels of COVID-19, including Hernando and Manatee counties.
In counties with “medium” community COVID-19 levels, residents who are at high risk of severe infection are recommended to wear a mask indoors in public. High-risk individuals include those with preexisting conditions, the elderly, and those who have yet to be fully vaccinated.
Residents in both “high” and “medium” risk areas should make sure their vaccinations and booster are up-to-date, according to the CDC guidelines. They should also get tested if they experience COVID-19 symptoms.
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How to get tested
Tampa Bay: The Times can help you find the free, public COVID-19 testing sites in the bay area.
Florida: The Department of Health has a website that lists testing sites in the state. Some information may be out of date.
The U.S.: The Department of Health and Human Services has a website that can help you find a testing site.
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How to get vaccinated
The COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 and up and booster shots for eligible recipients are being administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination sites. Many allow appointments to be booked online. Here’s how to find a site near you:
Find a site: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your ZIP code.
More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline.
Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.
Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.
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OMICRON VARIANT: Omicron changed what we know about COVID. Here’s the latest on how the infectious COVID-19 variant affects masks, vaccines, boosters and quarantining.
KIDS AND VACCINES: Got questions about vaccinating your kid? Here are some answers.
BOOSTER SHOTS: Confused about which COVID booster to get? This guide will help.
BOOSTER QUESTIONS: Are there side effects? Why do I need it? Here’s the answers to your questions.
PROTECTING SENIORS: Here’s how seniors can stay safe from the virus.
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