Tampa doctors fear one-two punch as flu cases rise while new COVID-19 strain emerges

Flu cases are on the rise and the most common strain impacting the public right now packs a pretty big punch, doctors said Friday.

According to the Florida Department of Health, nearly half of all counties are showing an increase in flu cases, including at least four in the Bay Area. The DOH has also recorded small outbreaks in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco.

This comes after a quiet flu season last year when much of the public was masked and socially distanced.

"If you look at the case numbers, it's kind of tracking like the 2018-2019 season," said USF Health immunologist Dr. Michael Teng, adding those weren't particularly troublesome flu seasons.

Dr. Teng, however, said the major concern this year is the dominant form of the flu: H3N2, a problematic strain of Influenza A, which can cause more serious symptoms and breakthrough cases among the vaccinated.

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"If you don't get the flu shot or if you get flu, even if you've gotten the shot, it tends to be a little bit more severe disease," Teng said.

Doctors in Tampa are already seeing an increase in flu patients.

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"Now, people are so concerned it could be COVID that they're coming in, so we're able to test them earlier on," said Dr. Carolyn Pass, a physician with Optum Primary Care and the chief of staff at AdventHealth in Lake Wales.

Meanwhile, Florida currently has the lowest flu vaccination rate in the country.

With the uncertainty surrounding the omicron variant of COVID-19, Dr. Pass said one of her biggest concerns is the possibility that flu and COVID cases could peak at the same time.

"I was able, from not just a provider's point of view, but from a quasi-administrative point of view, to see the collapse of our medical system in large chunks of the South [during the height of the recent COVID-19 surges]," Dr. Pass said. "[Areas] you would think would be impervious to that were brought to their knees and that can happen again."

Doctors are urging the public to get a flu shot, which can lessen the symptoms and shorten the duration of the virus.

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