60% of county residents eligible to be vaccinated for COVID-19 have had their shots, county administrator reports to commissioners

County’s virus positivity rate remains close to 6%, based on latest 14-day average

A health care worker at Sarasota Memorial Hospital receives the COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 22, 2020. Image courtesy Sarasota Memorial Hospital

Early in the afternoon of April 28, Sarasota County Administrator Jonathan Lewis sent an email to the county commissioners with the subject line, “Vaccines program.”

“Today, April 28th,” he wrote, “is four months to the day that the health department received [Moderna] doses for distribution. I think many take for granted after a mere 120 days more than 230,000 people have been vaccinated.”

Taking into account the percentage of county residents eligible to receive vaccinations, Lewis noted, “[W]e are at 60%. That is the second highest in the state based on my conversations with the health department.”

At the end of June 2020, the University of Florida’s Business and Economic Research Bureau (BEBR) estimated that in 2020, Sarasota County had a total population of 433,271. BEBR also projected that 63,510 of those persons were under the age of 18, leaving 369,761 who were 18 and older.

The bureau’s most recent county population estimate for 2020 — released on April 19 — is 438,816.

Although Sarasota County Health Officer Chuck Henry has pointed out to the county commissioners that persons ages 16 and 17 recently have been eligible for the Pfizer vaccine, he also has noted that the vast majority of those getting doses in the county have been 18 or older.

The latest vaccination data available from the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee — through April 27 — showed that the total number of county residents vaccinated was 233,935, with 157,390 — or 48.6% — having completed the series.

This is the April 27 COVID-19 vaccination data for Sarasota County, published by the state. Image from the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee

Lewis did point out in his April 28 email that the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County (DOH-Sarasota) has not been the only source for vaccinations. Sarasota Memorial Hospital, Publix grocery stores, federally operated clinics and CVS and Walgreens stores also have been among the providers. Additionally, the state has conducted pop-up clinics, Lewis noted.

In county staff’s April 28 update on the DOH-Sarasota vaccination initiative at Sarasota Square Mall — the latest available prior to The Sarasota News Leader’s publication deadline this week — Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant reminded the public that the mall Mall walk-up, first-dose clinics continue to be held from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Walk-ups for first doses also are welcome from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Those clinics are for persons 18 and older, she emphasized. Health Officer Henry has explained that the Pfizer vaccine is the only one to have won federal approval so far for use in persons younger than 18.

“Four months, and for the most part, everyone who has wanted to receive a vaccine and is eligible has received one,” Lewis wrote the commissioners in his April 28 email.

“There is certainly more to do,” he added, “but still a pretty amazing look back.”

Health officials across the country have voiced concerns over the past few weeks that the demand for vaccinations has decreased significantly.

On April 21, The Washington Post reported that the number of Americans getting vaccinated each day had dropped to approximately 3 million, “an 11 percent decrease in the seven-day average of daily shots administered over the past week.”

The Post added, “The unprecedented drop is rivaled only by a brief falloff that occurred in February, when winter storms forced the closure of vaccination sites and delayed shipments nationwide.”

These charts offer more details about vaccination levels in the county over the previous two weeks. Image from the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee

Not quite a year earlier — in late June 2020, before any vaccines were approved — Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, expressed his worries to CNN about the United States achieving “herd immunity” after the vaccination process began. “[T]here is a general anti-science, anti-authority, anti-vaccine feeling among some people in this country — an alarmingly large percentage of people, relatively speaking,” Fauci said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines herd immunity — or “community immunity” — as “a situation in which a sufficient proportion of a population is immune to an infectious disease (through vaccination and/or prior illness) to make its spread from person to person unlikely. Even individuals not vaccinated (such as newborns and those with chronic illnesses) are offered some protection because the disease has little opportunity to spread within the community.”

When will the pandemic end?

During county Health Officer Henry’s April 21 presentation to the County Commission, Commissioner Michael Moran pressed Henry about when people could consider the pandemic to be over.

Achieving a low transmission level, Henry emphasized, is the key to being able “to return to some form of normal, whatever the new normal looks like.”

As of that day, Henry reported that the latest data showed the 14-day COVID-19 positivity rate in Sarasota County was 6.03%, which was up from 5.6% two weeks earlier, when he addressed the board.

The 14-day positivity rate as of April 27, according to the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee, was 5.89%, the News Leader calculated.

This is the Sarasota County COVID-19 positivity data in the April 27 report from the state. Image from the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee

In late January and early February, Henry told the commissioners on April 21, the rate was “down around 3.5%.” He and his staff believed the recent climb has been a result of the elongated spring break period in the region, Henry added. Thus, he said, he expected the rate to decline over the next couple of weeks.

The Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University reported in an August 2020 article, “The higher the percent positive is, the more concerning it is. As a rule of thumb, however, one threshold for the percent positive being ‘too high’ is 5%. For example, the World Health Organization recommended in May [2020] that the percent positive remain below 5% for at least two weeks before governments consider reopening. If we are successful in bringing coronavirus transmission under control, this threshold might be lowered over time. To further relax social restrictions and allow very large gatherings or meetings of people traveling from many different areas, for example, we would want a lower threshold.”

The article also pointed out that a low positivity level does not mean herd immunity has been achieved. “A low percent positive simply means that the level of coronavirus transmission, relative to the amount of testing, is low at this point in time.”

On Feb. 24, responding to questions from Commissioners Moran and Christian Ziegler about the easing of public precautions related to the transmission of COVID-19, Health Officer Henry said that health officials would like to see the transmission level drop to 2%, “and maybe all the way down to 1%.”

This is the April 27 COVID-19 case data for Sarasota County. Image from the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee

On April 21, Henry emphasized the measures he has stressed from the outset of the pandemic: social distancing, wearing masks in “mixed company” (situations in which a person cannot be sure everyone has been fully vaccinated), vigorous and frequent hand washing, and staying home when one feels unwell.

County staff has continued to recommend that the public monitor the DOH-Sarasota website and the county website for any COVID-19 updates, including information about vaccinations.