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Tampa mayor, USF faculty discuss COVID-19 vaccine, potential treatments during town hall

A panel of USF medical experts discussed a possible vaccine, possible symptom treatments and coronavirus timeline with Mayor Jane Castor in the COVID-19 town hall Thursday. ORACLE PHOTO

Under masks and distanced from one another, three USF faculty members participated in a COVID-19 town hall Thursday night with Tampa Mayor Jane Castor on the future impacts of COVID-19 within the Tampa Bay community.

With a total viewership of 73 people, the town hall was streamed on Facebook Live from Busch Gardens and featured a panel discussion between Kami Kim, USF professor of Internal Medicine and Global Health; Edwin Michael, professor in the USF College of Public Health; and Michael Teng, associate professor of medicine at USF Morsani College of Medicine. They discussed vaccine developments, social determinants of coronavirus, projection models and plans for the future handling of COVID-19 by the Tampa government.

The first hour of the town hall consisted of a panel discussion moderated by the hosts of the Big Biology podcast, Lynn Martin and Art Woods. The beginning of the discussion revolved around the economic effects which Tampa is seeing due to the novel coronavirus. 

Castor said that economically Tampa is “going to be hit” and suggested the city is only at the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of economic fallout from the virus.

“We did a number of relief programs with money that we brought together, just under $8 million, for relief on mortgage, rent and utilities for individuals and small businesses, but there are a lot of small businesses which are going to go out of business,” she said. “We are doing the best we can to avoid that.”

Castor said that she and the city council are looking for ways to lift the community. But, despite the challenges, Castor remains optimistic about the ability of the community to recover.

“As a community, we will recover much quicker than a number of communities nationwide because we are in great fiscal condition, and we are still a location that individuals want to come to,” Castor said.

Kim fielded a subsequent question about potential treatments. She noted that Remdesivir, a broad-spectrum antiviral medication, is promising in terms of symptom reduction during the viral phase of coronavirus and that corticosteroids, hormones produced in the adrenal cortex of vertebrae commonly used to treat asthma, help reduce inflammation during the virus’ inflammatory phase. 

She said that the physicians know the disease better now and can treat symptoms more adequately.

“Our mortality rates are much better now than they were early on,” she said.

During Hillsborough County’s peak of coronavirus cases in July, the fatality rate was 5.5%. Now, it has fallen to 1.65%, according to the county’s COVID-19 data dashboard. 

One topic that was brought up several times over the course of the town hall was the social inequalities of people who get the virus. 

Michael said that there are “systemic issues which led to disproportionate numbers of cases.” This was in reference to many individuals currently facing poverty who do not have the ability to quarantine or access resources that would prevent the spread of the virus.

Castor gave some examples of ways in which her administration has been addressing the issue.

“The county actually contracted with two hotels, so that if they needed to quarantine, they could go there if they didn’t have the ability,” she said.

She acknowledged that this was not a permanent solution to systemic issues but served to temporarily eliminate some problems.

Another frequently discussed topic was the development and distribution of a vaccine. To the panel, the answers were largely unknown, but Teng remained positive despite the uncertainty. 

“I’m pretty optimistic,” Teng said. “I do think that by the end of this year we will find a vaccine that shows at least some promise as a first line vaccine for coronavirus.”

He said that the more important question regarding vaccines is, “who do we give it to?” The question sparked conversation among the panel. 

The members were largely in agreement that the elderly, front-line workers and immunocompromised should be the first to receive the vaccine in order to reduce the spread.

“If you’re young and healthy, you’re probably not getting this vaccine until 2022,” Teng said. “If you’re in a high-risk group, you’ll probably get it next year sometime.”

Right now, the process of distributing a vaccine is largely unknown, according to Castor. This will be determined as a vaccine is closer to completion.

An important part of the vaccinations, according to Michael, is the rate of transmission. He suggested that up to 67% of people in Hillsborough County will need to be vaccinated to properly control the spread of the virus and reopen the economy. He said this will be especially important because of the latest uptick in cases.

“We will need to lock down the community until the end of March if you want to fully reopen,” he said.

Michael and Teng said that if the superspreaders of the virus can be determined, only 40% of the population would need to be vaccinated. However, according to Kim, there is not enough testing or information as of now to accurately determine who superspreaders are.

The panel also attempted to clarify two commonly confused points. Michael discussed the severe impact of COVID-19 on young people, as well as the ability of the virus to affect people for months after initial infection. Kim oversees a clinic on the Tampa campus which, she said, has received an uptick in calls about long-term effects.

“We had a lot of cases in July, and what we’re having is people who had the disease and they’re three or four months out and they’re not back to normal,” she said. “We get a lot of phone calls from people who are not recovering quickly.”

Another point that Michael wanted to clarify for the public is the permanence of coronavirus.

“This is not going to go away,” he said. “It is going to join the flu, it is going to circulate globally. Immunity is not permanent.”

For the final half-hour, the panel took questions written by audience members at the time of their registration.

The first question regarded college students keeping family members safe when returning home for winter break. The panel was hesitant to answer this question, remaining silent for several seconds. Ultimately, Teng answered.

“You could do the things like masking and hand hygiene for the first few days if you have a good test that you could get rapidly, then you could know [if you have coronavirus],” he said. “It’s the small gatherings that have been driving a lot of the infections recently, so it is going to be a risk.”

The panel went on to warn students returning home to consider their family members.

“With the risk, you can’t just consider yourself,” Castor said. “You have to think outside yourself, especially for the young people, and think about others who you may be putting at risk through your actions.”

This was a unanimous agreement of the panel, and the town hall ended with emphasis on being cognizant of the virus’ transmissibility to others.  

“We’re all in this together,” Teng said. “We’re all susceptible, those of us who haven’t been infected, and we need to protect each other.”