Between holidays and omicron, demand for COVID testing jumps

Demand for COVID-19 tests is rising just as the holidays approach and the omicron variant becomes the dominant strain in the U.S., infecting people who were already vaccinated or even got boosted.  

"I’m out here to get COVID tested after unfortunately being exposed to COVID from a friend who was even fully boosted and still tested positive," said Grant Godeke, a Tampa resident who came to the Hillsborough County testing site Monday.

The virus is now more contagious than before, scientists say. And with a few days left before Christmas, people were lining up to make sure they didn’t catch it or spread it.

Hillsborough County’s West Tampa Community Resource Center served over 2,000 over the last three days.

"Definitely there’s been an increase in the last week or so, and part of it could be due to holiday travel, family gatherings, things of that nature, or the variant," said Iñaki Rezola, the deputy director of Hillsborough County Emergency Management and operations section chief.

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The new omicron variant has many wondering how well you’re protected if you’re fully vaccinated and even boosted. Epidemiologists like USF Health’s Dr. Thomas Unnasch said the shots, especially boosters, are still your best line of defense.

"We wanted something that was going to downgrade this thing to maybe a mild cold infection or a moderate cold and not something that's going to put us in the hospital and endanger our lives. And in that case, the two doses are still doing a pretty good job at protecting against that," said Unnasch.

RELATED: Florida COVID-19 cases increasing after dropping significantly since August

Scientists said the omicron variant spreads faster and seems to slip past the vaccines, leading to more breakthrough infections. A doctor on the White House COVID-19 response team said it’s not enough to rely only on the shots. 

"That's not a matter of whether or not she is vaccinated. It's also a matter of are you taking those mitigation measures in mind? Are you wearing masks? I'm vaccinated and boosted, and I still wear masks when going to indoor spaces because I want to minimize the risk of getting COVID and having the ability to transmit," said Dr. Cameron Webb, the policy advisor for equity on the White House COVID-19 response team.

Scientists and doctors are still learning about the virus, and it is testing defenses. Doctors say it will take a few weeks to determine which treatment cocktails work best, given treatments like monoclonal antibodies are said by drugmaker Regeneron to not be as effective against omicron.

"Obviously this new variant is very contagious so people should try to be very responsible, and I guess to get vaccinated if they haven’t already," said Godeke.