Sarasota County Health Department staff hopes to have new COVID-19 vaccination reservation system in place by early next week

Health Officer calls recent trends in infections in the county ‘a little bit alarming’

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

The Sarasota County Health Officer told the County Commission on Jan. 13 that he and his staff have been working with representatives of the county’s Emergency Management Division to determine the best new system to make available for COVID-19 vaccination appointments.

During his update, Chuck Henry — who also is a county employee in charge of the Health and Human Services Department — explained that, on Jan. 12, the two groups talked with a vendor during an online session in regard to a system that company could provide. Additionally, Henry said, state leaders announced on Jan. 12 that they hoped to have a statewide system up and running by the weekend.

The goal, Henry stressed, is to get a system in place that will work efficiently for both telephone and online reservations, without crashing. People would be able to register, Henry continued, “and get in line electronically” for vaccinations, with shots delivered to persons in the order in which their reservations were made.

“We hope to be there no later than early next week,” Henry said, referring to the launch of the new system. He did not want to put a system in place, he emphasized, only to find that it was problematic and needed to be replaced.

He also hopes, Henry said, that the new system will provide more flexibility to Florida Department of Health-Sarasota (DOH-Sarasota) staff members, so they can set up big vaccination sites at various locations in the county.

“The vaccine distribution is a federal program that’s pushed down to the state,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler emphasized, and then the state oversees the entire process within the state. “We have a very limited role in the distribution of the vaccine [as a local government].”

“That’s correct,” Henry responded.

“Our role is basically a lobbying role,” Ziegler added, referring to the commissioners.

Chuck Henry addresses the County Commission on March 24, 2020. File image

DOH-Sarasota received its first batch of the Moderna vaccine on Dec. 28, 2020, Henry pointed out, and a clinic was set up for the very next day.

The initial allotment to the Health Department was 3,500 doses, Henry continued. Then, for the second week, the department received 1,400.

Last week, he said, DOH-Sarasota staff was notified that the facility would get no doses. However, on Monday, it turned out that the state provided 1,000 more doses to DOH-Sarasota, henry added. “We will be out by the end of this week.”

Altogether, Henry pointed out, close to 18,000 shots have been given in the county, through all the facilities that have received the vaccine.

The distribution, he explained, is dependent upon how many doses the state receives. “I don’t know exactly where the hold-ups are.”

The state’s first batch added up to close to half-a-million doses, Henry noted. “This week, they had 250,000 allotted for the entire state.”

Along with hospitals and health departments, Henry said, CVS and Walgreens are receiving vaccine for people in long-term care facilities, and a pilot program is underway in Publix pharmacies in more rural counties, to enable people with limited health care resources to get shots, as well.

When commissioners expressed vexation from constituents about the fact that people from outside the county and even from outside the state have been able to get vaccinated in Sarasota County, Henry reminded them that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Executive Order on vaccine distribution “does not have a residency requirement.” Thus, DOH-Sarasota staff has been following that directive in vaccinating people 65 years of age and older, he added, regardless of where they live.

Commissioner Ron Cutsinger asked why the vaccine has not been targeted to older groups in the state — such as those 75 and older or 85 and older. Henry again noted the Executive Order, which specified persons age 65 and up. “That’s what I’m constrained to do,” Henry told Cutsinger.

The Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County is located on Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota. Image from Google Maps

In regard to another concern commissioners expressed, on the basis of constituent communications, Henry explained that DOH-Sarasota cancelled all the appointments it had made for persons to return to its facilities in downtown Sarasota to get their booster shots. The reason for that action, he said, is that he and his staff are considering establishing a drive-through site to deliver those second doses. Space is limited at the Ringling Boulevard location, he noted.

Every person who received the first shot will be notified, on the basis of contact information he or she gave DOH-Sarasota, so the person will know when and where to go to get the booster, Henry told the board.

The status of COVID-19 in the county

This is the Jan. 12 COVID-19 report for Sarasota County. Image from the Florida Department of Health

At the outset of his remarks, Henry provided the board members an overview of the COVID-19 situation in the county. The latest figures he had, Henry noted, were from the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee, representing Jan. 11 data.

The total number of cases, cumulatively, since the first patient was identified in the county in March was 21,626, Henry said.

However, he continued, “Of important note, 1,720 of them occurred in the last seven days. That’s a little bit alarming to me.”

The number of new cases is averaging about 224 per day, Henry pointed out.

In comparison, he said, the average for new daily cases in September was 34. “Tremendous difference between then and now.”

The positivity rate averaged over the past 14 days was 7.7%, he continued. “That’s a little higher than I’d want it to be.”

The low figure for positivity based on testing was about 4% in September, he said.

This is the COVID-19 testing data for Sarasota County as of Jan. 12. Image from the Florida Department of Health

The most recent 7-day positivity rate is 8.09%, he added.

The county probably has more incidence of the virus than at any other point since the pandemic began, Henry told the commissioners. He attributed that to the holiday season —Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day — as well as the travel that ensued during those periods.

Another factor, he acknowledged, is “maybe a little bit of complacency. We’ve been in this for 11-plus months,” he added, and people have grown weary of taking precautions.

Nonetheless, Henry urged people to maintain social distancing, wear masks when social distancing is not possible, stay home if they feel sick, and wash their hands frequently and for sufficient time to eliminate any virus with which they may have come into contact. (Health professionals have suggested washing hands for 20 seconds — or the time it takes to sing Happy Birthday to You twice.)

Further, Henry stressed, “Be very suspicious of symptoms.” If someone thinks he or she may have allergies or a mild cold, for example, Henry said the person should get tested, in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, if the person indeed has been infected.

Testing is available at two state-operated sites in the county, Henry pointed out: the R.L. Taylor Community Complex, located at 1845 34th St. in Sarasota, near Booker High School; and the Sarasota Kennel Club, located at 5400 Bradenton Road, just off University Parkway.

Persons wait in line for testing in June 2020 at the R.L. Taylor Community Complex. Image courtesy City of Sarasota via Facebook

The Taylor site is a walk-up facility, he pointed out, while the Kennel Club is a drive-up center.

Both provide rapid testing, Henry said, which means persons can get results shortly after they leave. Individuals also may request what is known as the “PCR test,” which takes longer, but, since it uses DNA, it can determine whether a person has had the virus even if the person is not sick at the time of the test.

Further, Henry provided the board members with the latest hospitalization data for facilities in Sarasota County, where approximately 1,400 beds are available.

His figures that morning, he said, showed that 70% of the beds were occupied, “which is really full.” However, Henry pointed out, “That’s typical in season,” when the county has more snowbirds and visitors in the community.

The hospitals reported 139 COVID-19 patients on Jan. 12, Henry continued, out of a total of about 960 persons in the facilities. Each COVID-19 patient necessitates that a hospital use “a tremendous amount of resources,” he added, as the patient must be isolated, and staff must wear all the appropriate protective gear before engaging in any contact with the person.

Next, Henry noted that, of the 114 Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds in the county, about 70 were occupied on Jan. 12. Twenty-nine of those patients had COVID-19, he said.

In response to another question, Henry told the commissioners that he would consider the virus to be under control in the county when the positivity rate consistently remains below 3%.

Asked if persons who have been vaccinated need to continue to observe the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) precautions, Henry advised that they do so, “as the science is still out on that.” A lot depends on an individual’s immune system, he noted, as well as the amount of the pathogen with which the person has been in contact. Still, Henry said, a vaccinated individual is likely to have a milder case of the virus, if the person does become infected.