Chuck Henry answers County Commission questions about when people can return to ‘new normal’ and about pursuing variety of clinic options to reach people who have not been vaccinated
Close to 75% of Sarasota County residents who age 65 and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, county Health Officer Chuck Henry told the county commissioners this week.
However, since the enhanced county registration system launched on March 15 for anyone 18 and older, only 26,488 individuals had signed up by the time of his March 23 presentation, Henry said. (By 4 p.m. that day, the figure had climbed to 27,890, Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant reported. Then, as of 11 a.m. on March 25, she noted the number of individual accounts was 30,048.)
Those new numbers compare to the 159,519 who created accounts in the original Everbridge system — launched Jan. 20 — for those 65 and older, Henry told the commissioners.
About 10,000 out of the original group had not responded to efforts to provide them appointments, Henry continued, so county staff was making second and third attempts to reach them.
As of the morning of March 23, when Henry addressed the commissioners, the county had notified persons through account number 171,396 about the availability of appointments, he said. Because of the number of people declining slots or not showing up, Henry noted, staff on March 22 began sending appointment opportunities to those in the new system who are 60 and older.
(By early afternoon on March 24, appointments had been scheduled through account number 185,103, the Media Relations Officer Grant reported.)
The county has approximately 164,000 residents age 65 and above, Henry pointed out. The number for those 50 and older is about 258,000, he said.
As of March 22, as well, Henry continued, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ most recent Executive Order allows anyone 50 and older to get vaccinated. Approximately 56% of that group in Sarasota County has had at least one dose of a vaccine, he added, which is the third highest total among the state’s 67 counties.
Altogether, Henry said, as of the morning of March 23, about 34% of the total county population had been vaccinated, as frontline health care workers and staff of elder care facilities also were in the governor’s first priority group.
During a county-produced video released late in the afternoon of March 23, Henry and Emergency Services Director Rich Collins encouraged everyone who wants to be vaccinated who is 18 or older to go ahead and register in the county system. Then each will be assigned a number as the person becomes eligible, based on DeSantis’ directives. That number, Henry explained, will be based on the “time stamp” showing the time and date the person completed the online form.
“We expect that [eligible] age group to keep dropping pretty rapidly,” Henry said.
Just two days later, on March 25, DeSantis announced that beginning Monday, March 29, individuals 40 and older, along with frontline health care workers, school staff and law enforcement officers, will be eligible to register to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. The governor added that on Monday, April 5, all individuals 18 and older will be eligible to register for vaccinations, county staff reported in an email blast.
“On Monday, March 29, [DOH-Sarasota] will begin assigning account numbers to individuals who are 40 and older,” who already are registered in the system and will continue to assign account numbers to new registrants 40 and older and the other eligible persons, the email blast said. “These individuals will receive an account number and be queued in line to receive an appointment notice.”
Individuals 18 to 39 and older who already have registered in the system will begin receiving account numbers starting Monday, April 5, the email blast added; “new registrants will receive account numbers within 48 hours of registering. Adults 18 and older will be queued in line to receive an appointment notice on a first-come, first-served basis,” the email blast pointed out.
A second mall location and potential other clinic sites
During his March 23 remarks to the commissioners, Henry also reported that, because he will have “about 10,000-plus second doses” to deliver starting this week and continuing for at least the following three weeks, staff was able to secure a second, larger space in Sarasota Square Mall to ensure sufficient capacity for delivery of both first and second doses.
“We’re real excited about moving into that second space,” he said, as the current facility has room for a maximum of about 2,000 shots to be delivered per day. (The new storefront has more than 21,000 square feet of space, compared to 13,000 in the location staff has been using, Henry pointed out during the March 23 video update with Collins.)
As of March 24, Henry noted, persons getting their first doses would be directed to the new space, while those with appointments for second doses will return to the site where they received their first shots. He indicated in the video that that system probably would remain in place for a while.
“We are working with county Communications [Department staff] to put signage up,” he told the commissioners, so people will know where to go in the mall.
Blue signs will direct the public to the first-dose clinics, he said, while green signs will lead to the second-dose facility.
Commissioner Christian Ziegler questioned whether it was appropriate for Henry to have secured the second mall space, given the fact that “only about 30,000 [individuals] signed up [in the enhanced registration system]. It’s not as high as probably a lot of people would expect.”
Henry reiterated the need for the second space for the coming weeks, to ensure the second doses can be delivered within the appropriate time frame. The lease agreements the county has signed with the mall give staff the ability to provide 30 days of notice that a space no longer will be needed, Henry added. Therefore, it will be possible to cut back to one space quickly if staff needs to do so, he said.
If staff vaccinates the latest people registered who are eligible for shots, and no more persons can receive doses at that point, Henry continued, staff will have to decide the best subsequent steps to ensure that the vaccine the county receives is delivered to persons. Pop-up clinics in specific geographic locations would be one option, Henry added.
In response to a question from Commissioner Ron Cutsinger, Henry said he would not make a decision on how to proceed “until we have a discussion with the board, and we may not have the opportunity to [conduct such clinics] if more people don’t register.”
Henry emphasized that he will consider every option for providing vaccine to individuals, including a focus on communities with predominantly minority populations. He also said the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County (DOH-Sarasota) could contact leaders of homeowner associations who had approached the staff in the past about holding clinics for their residents.
One location where no clinic has been conducted is the Town of Longboat Key, Henry noted. DOH-Sarasota has not scheduled anything there, he indicated, because of concern that driving to the town would add considerable travel time for some persons in the registration system, since staff was scheduling appointments in order of account number, regardless of where people live in the county.
Another area yet to be served is Englewood, Henry told the commissioners.
When Ziegler asked about the potential of on-demand clinics at various county locations, Henry replied that that is a possibility, as well. Staff also is considering whether to adjust the clinic hours at the mall, he continued. Perhaps nighttime hours or appointment slots later in the day would be the best way to ensure people can get their doses, Henry added.
Expanding the eligibility list
During the March 23 discussion, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis pointed out, “We have a chunk of people under the age of 50 who have registered.” It would be good to be able to vaccinate them, as well, he said.
“It’s a promising problem to have,” Ziegler replied. “The question is how do you go after the 18-plus [individuals]” who do not read a daily newspaper or see county government alerts about the registry. “Are we aggressively going after that age group?”
Ziegler pointed out that he has talked with people who are 50 who did not realize they are eligible for vaccinations.
Henry concurred with Ziegler’s observation. As a result, Henry said, the county Communications team is adjusting its social media messages to try to reach all the eligible age groups.
Moreover, Henry continued, “We are ready should the board wish to encourage, through the [county legislative] delegation, more rapid expansion of the age groups [for vaccination].”
In other information, Henry said that anyone who is homebound who is eligible for a shot can email HomeboundVaccine@em.myflorida.com, which is a state email address. The person will be asked to fill out a short survey, Henry explained, and then the person will be added to the list for a visit by a regional team handling such vaccinations.
People with no computers may call the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County at 941-861-2883, Henry said, and staff will help them get their names on that list.
Persons who are not eligible by age but who are medically vulnerable to the virus also may call that number for assistance in getting their shots at physicians’ offices, Henry added.
Each of those individuals has to have his or her doctor fill out a form attesting to the fact that the physician has been seeing the person as a patient, Henry pointed out, and that the person qualifies for that category.
Booster shots and the end of the pandemic
Commissioner Ziegler also asked Henry whether booster vaccinations will be necessary “in a year.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “has not determined that,” Henry responded. However, he pointed out, “Most vaccines have some threshold at which you get a booster.” For example, he said, persons get a flu shot each year, and tetanus shots are recommended every 10 years, unless an individual suffers an injury that necessitates an earlier booster.
“At what point do we get to normal operations in the community?” Ziegler asked. “Who makes that call?”
In some communities, masks are still being mandated, Ziegler pointed out, and “Businesses are pushing [that] on customers.”
Henry reminded Ziegler that mandates “are really a governmental function.”
As for when public health officials believe people could become less concerned about precautions, Henry said he would like to see the positivity rate for the virus fall below 2% “and stay consistent there for at least 14 days, and we see hospitalizations continue to drop …”
A 2% positivity rate, Henry explained, would indicate that people are still at risk of contracting the virus in the community, but that risk would be lower.
At the outset of his presentation, Henry noted that as of the previous day, 48 individuals were COVID-19 patients in the community’s four acute-care hospitals, and 10 of those were in Intensive Care Units. “This is the lowest we’ve probably seen since August .”
The positivity rate, he said, was about 3.6%, for a 14-day average, when he previously appeared before the commissioners on March 9. That figure had climbed to “right around 4%,” Henry added, “so we’re watching it closely. It’s not a big jump.”
The case count average per day over the past 14 days had risen from 218 in early March to 224, he said.
Altogether, as of March 21, Henry reported, 28,515 COVID-19 cases had been documented in the county, along with 1,275 hospitalizations and 777 deaths. Of the latter, he noted, 389 were linked to elder care facilities.
“As long as the variants don’t change the picture for us,” Henry told Ziegler, “I think we’re continuing to move in a good direction.”
Henry did point out that 1,075 cases of variants — or mutations of the COVID-19 virus, as he explained on March 9 — had been recorded in Florida. Forty people had been hospitalizations with those variants, Henry added, and seven deaths had been reported statewide. All of those cases involved the United Kingdom variant, he noted.
It is possible that precautions could be eased “before summer’s over,” Henry told Ziegler. “Right now, we’re still in a low to moderate level.”
The DOH-Sarasota staff still is encouraging people to practice social distancing and to wear masks when social distancing is not possible, Henry added.
The CDC has offered new guidance on activities that fully vaccinated individuals should feel safe pursuing without masks, he continued. However, Henry stressed, the more people from outside a family group added into the mix, the greater the risk of a COVID-19 infection occurring.
“So we’re policy makers up here,” Ziegler replied, while Henry and his staff are “the health experts.” Then Ziegler questioned whether a positivity rate under 2% for 14 days would enable the county to return to more of a normal situation.
“I don’t know that I can describe what the new normal will look like,” Henry said. “I think, right now, we’re all in a heightened sense of protection.” He expects that situation to continue at least through early summer, he added. If the positivity rate remained below 2%, Henry continued, “Then I would feel more confident not complaining about policies you might set.”