Approximately 70,000 county residents age 65 and up remain to be vaccinated against COVID-19, Health Officer tells the County Commission

Concerns about variants emphasized, as Florida has highest number of those cases in the U.S.

This is the March 10 vaccination update for Sarasota County. It was the most recent information available prior to the News Leader‘s publication deadline for this week. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health

Sarasota County Health Officer Chuck Henry estimated this week that about 70,000 of the county residents age 65 and older have not received a COVID-19 vaccination.

“Just over 23% of our total population has now been vaccinated,” he reported to the County Commission on March 9, as frontline health care providers — including firefighters/paramedics — and residents and staff of long-term care facilities also have been eligible to get their shots.

He added that 84% of the vaccine doses the county has received have gone to persons 65 and older, with 55% of that age group having received their shots.

The staff of the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County (DOH-Sarasota) is continuing to work through the Everbridge registration system the county launched on Jan. 20, he added.

Even if a pop-up clinic is scheduled in Venice, “We still stick to our list, correct?” Commissioner Nancy Detert asked.

“That’s correct,” Henry told her. “It seems to be the only fair way to do it.”

As of that morning, Henry said, the number of accounts was 150,638, and staff had scheduled appointments through No. 82,904. “Each account can have two registrations in it,” he reminded the commissioners.

By the end of the week, he added, he anticipated staff would release details about the registration process for those persons between the ages of 60 and 65, who will be eligible for vaccinations thanks to a recent Executive Order that Gov. Ron DeSantis issued. (See the related article in this issue.)

As of March 7, Henry noted, 27,572 COVID-19 cases had been confirmed in the county, along with 1,259 hospitalizations and 750 deaths. Of the latter, he continued, 385 were linked to long-term care facilities. (The March 7 data from the state was the latest available, he pointed out, when he was preparing to update the board members.)

This is the March 7 COVID-19 update for Sarasota County. Image from the Florida Department of Health website

The county’s COVID-19 positivity rate averaged over the previous 14 days was 3.6%, Henry added. “We’d like to see it continue lower,” he said. “It seems to be hovering right there for the time being.”

As of March 8, he pointed out, 69 patients suffering with COVID-19 were in the county’s acute care hospitals; 14 of those individuals were in intensive care units. “Those numbers have remained fairly steady for the last few weeks,” he said, “and we’d like to see them continue downward.”

“We’ve never seen our health system overwhelmed, which was our primary goal,” Henry pointed out. Nonetheless, he said, hospital staff members were stressed at times because of the numbers of COVID-19 patients they were treating.

About 160 COVID-19 patients were in the county’s hospitals in July, at the peak of the pandemic, he noted.

“I think we’re in excellent shape in Sarasota County with our health system. … We look at those hospital numbers every day.”

Henry did voice concern about the growing number of COVID-19 cases in the state caused by three variants — or mutations — of the novel coronavirus. Altogether, 684 such cases had been identified, he said. “Florida continues to lead the nation with the largest number of [variant cases] reported.”

Additionally, Henry noted, the state has recorded 20 hospitalizations and two deaths linked to those variants.

This is data about the county’s COVID-19 positivity rates as of March 7. Image from the Florida Department of Health website

The most prevalent one in the state is the United Kingdom mutation, Henry continued, with 642 cases. Five other cases were linked to the Brazilian variant, with one case of the South African variant confirmed, he added.

“We continue to watch [that situation] as an important component of our battle against COVID,” Henry told the commissioners. Scientists are studying all the variants, he explained, to try to determine whether they will prove more resistant to the vaccinations that are available, whether they will lead to more hospitalizations and deaths and whether people can become infected with them more easily, for examples.

Although the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provided new guidance on March 8 for activities that appear safe for fully vaccinated individuals to pursue, Henry noted, the guidance still calls for people to avoid travel, to practice social distancing and to wear masks when social distancing is not possible.

A bevy of questions

In response to a question from Commissioner Christian Ziegler, Henry explained that persons under the age of 65 with pre-existing conditions can get forms signed by their regular physicians, which will enable them to get vaccinated. Initially, he said, such persons were directed to hospitals. However, given the state directive affecting such persons, and given the need for medical centers to vaccinate patients of their attending physicians, those persons with doctor-signed forms will need to set up appointments with pharmacists, Henry advised the board members.

Publix, CVS, Walmart and Sam’s Club stores all have pharmacists, Henry pointed out. “That’s not the simplest process,” he acknowledged in regard to trying to secure an appointment at such a store. Therefore, he noted, he and his staff are working with representatives of the Sarasota Medical Society to try to find other means of assisting those individuals.

“I’ve had a bunch of people ask me about this,” Ziegler told Henry.

These are among the features on the county’s dedicated COVID-19 webpages. Image courtesy Sarasota County

People also should monitor the county’s and DOH-Sarasota’s webpages dedicated to COVID-19 vaccinations, Henry said, as staff hopes to provide more details soon about other ways for those persons to get their shots.

When Ziegler asked about teachers getting vaccinated, Henry responded, “We’re partnering with the [Sarasota County] School District and are in discussion with [state officials] about how best to provide vaccinations for that group.”

The state is organizing teams that will go to counties to provide vaccinations in “pods” for teachers, Henry added. The county has slightly fewer than 3,000 teachers in the public school system, Henry said, but K-12 teachers in private schools also are eligible.

The federal vaccination sites will deliver doses to all K-12 teachers, Henry pointed out. One such facility is located in Tampa at the former greyhound racetrack, which stands at 755 E. Waters Ave. and is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.

Then Ziegler asked how efforts were proceeding to vaccinate minority residents in the historically African American community of Newtown in the city of Sarasota.

Two “closed pod events” had been conducted there thus far, Henry replied. Another one likely will be held this weekend or next weekend, he noted. “We’re trying to get [Newtown residents’] vaccination percentages as close as possible to our overall population [percentage].”

In response to another question from Ziegler, Henry said that the county’s COVID-19 positivity level is “trending slightly lower” than that of the state, but it is not as low as the level some counties are reporting. Nonetheless, Henry continued, “I think we’re doing really well,” which he called a tribute to county residents’ precautions.

Henry added that he knows people are eager to stop using masks. However, he said, “I just think we need to be patient a little longer. … The most transmission [of the virus] comes in that 18- to 40-year-old group,” which is not generally eligible for vaccinations.

The “herd immunity” range, Henry noted, is 70% to 80%. He said he also would like to see the county positivity rate below 2% before he would feel comfortable telling people they do not have to be as cautious.

“I think we have a really promising future,” Henry said, given how the vaccination process has been proceeding. “We just have to stay the course a little bit longer.”

Replying to a question posed by Commissioner Michael Moran, Henry noted that some counties already have vaccinated all their residents 65 and older, so “They’re ready to move on” to other ages. Gov. DeSantis has been working to make decisions that he feels are appropriate statewide, Henry added.

The state’s vaccination system — Florida Shots — keeps track of all vaccinations for all counties, Henry explained, including those for childhood diseases. His staff makes every effort, he continued, to upload data from each of the county’s COVID-19 vaccination clinics within 24 hours of doses having been delivered. Then it takes the system a maximum of 48 hours to show that new data, Henry said.

Volunteers and spacing issues

When Commissioner Ron Cutsinger asked about the status of DOH-Sarasota’s volunteer assistance with its clinics at Sarasota Square mall on South Tamiami Trail, Henry replied, “Right now, we’re doing really well with our volunteer list.”

The biggest need, Henry pointed out, is a sufficient number of persons licensed to deliver vaccinations, including nurses and pharmacists.

This week, he noted DOH-Sarasota received 13,000 first doses and 7,000 second doses, thanks to commissioners’ pleas to state leaders for more vaccine because of the county’s high percentage of seniors.

Members of the public check in at the DOH-Sarasota clinic location within Sarasota Square Mall on Feb. 5. Image from a DOH-Sarasota video

As a result of the higher numbers of doses, Henry continued, DOH-Sarasota staff is looking “to expand to larger space [at the mall]” or to find an additional site. The capacity of the mall facility, he noted, is about 2,000 doses a day. The maximum delivered in a single day in that space, Henry said, was between 2,300 and 2,400. That count came during a second-dose clinic, he added, when some people just showed up without appointments.

Since then, Henry said, to ensure people do not have long waits, staff has been sending out appointments for second doses as well as first doses.

Staff also is looking at how it can schedule more days for second-dose clinics, he told the board members.

When Cutsinger asked about the potential for a South County location to be selected as a clinic site, Henry replied that DOH-Sarasota personnel had been researching facilities in and around the mall, because continuing clinics in that area that would create “staffing efficiencies.”