County Health Officer Chuck Henry cautions commissioners that relaxed precautions at this stage, and vaccination resistance, could prolong pandemic

Slightly more than half of county residents vaccinated against COVID-19

This is the April 20 data from the state regarding vaccinations in Sarasota County. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee

As of April 20, 51% of the entire population in Sarasota County had been vaccinated for COVID-19, county Health Officer Chuck Henry told the county commissioners this week.

Of those 16 and older, he added, the figure is 58%. The age group with the highest rate comprises individuals 65 and above, Henry noted: 86%. Of those 50 and above, he said, the mark is 74%.

As of April 20, Henry pointed out, 225,185 of the county’s approximately 435,000 residents had been vaccinated, with the majority — 143,781 — having completed the series.

“I say 300K by Independence Day” has become his mantra, Henry told the board members on April 21.

Commissioner Michael Moran pointed out to Henry that it was just about a year ago that Henry first stood before the board members to report on the pandemic. That day, Moran continued, Moran asked how success would be defined in terms of defeating the virus’ spread.

“Your average hardworking taxpayer, I believe, is starting to get very interested in what the conclusion is,” Moran added.

Health Officer Chuck Henry addresses the commissioners on April 7. News Leader image

Had Henry learned anything about discussions at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that indicated how its staff would conclude that the pandemic is over, Moran asked.

Nothing to that effect had been published, to his knowledge, Henry responded. “There’s a lot of unknowns yet,” Henry continued, in regard to the impact variants of the virus —mutations — may have on transmission.

“I’m hoping by July, if we reach that 300,000 vaccinated number,” Henry added, that the county will reach a low transmission point, with the positivity rate dropping significantly, “and then we can relax a little bit.”

“I think we’re going to beat it,” he said of the virus, “but relaxing now may prolong how long it takes us to get to the end game.”

He has read about persons’ resistance to being vaccinated, he continued, noting that refusing to get shots is an individual’s right.

However, Henry pointed out, that stance “prolongs just the nature of the way this illness moves.”

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.”

“Without that definitional conversation,” Moran told Henry, “[the pandemic] feels endless.” If people felt they could see the conclusion ahead, Moran continued, they would be more hopeful and patient “and do what’s asked, not demanded of them.”

A slide Henry showed the board that morning stressed that the key messages for residents of the community remain the following:

  • Get vaccinated as soon as possible.
  • Continue to practice social distancing “and wear masks in public places and in mixed groups (groups with both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals).”
  • Practice frequent and vigorous hand-washing.
  • Stay home when you are sick.

More data

As of the evening of April 20, Henry told the commissioners, the total count of county COVID-19 cases stood at 31,567.

That was “about 2,200 more than two weeks ago,” Henry said, referring to his previous report to the board.

Altogether, 1,326 people had had to be hospitalized, Henry said, and 808 deaths had been recorded. Of the latter, he noted, 399 were linked to elder care facilities.

This graphic provides data about the pandemic in Sarasota County. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health in Sarasota

The data also showed 74 COVID-19 patients in the four acute-care hospitals in the county — 23 more individuals than the figure he provided two weeks ago. “That still is a concern,” Henry added. Of those patients, 13 were in intensive care units.

“The hospitals are still experiencing their end-of-the-busy-season, full capacity,” he pointed out. Sarasota Memorial Hospital has 839 beds, he noted. The previous day, the number filled was 766, he added. “So only about 75 empty beds in that huge hospital.” However, only 54 of the patients were suffering with COVID-19, he said.

The county’s COVID-19 positivity rate over the 14 days through April 20 was 6.03%, Henry continued. That compared to 5.6% two weeks ago.

In late January and early February, he noted, “We were down around 3.5%. We believe [the recent climb] is a result of the elongated spring break period we have here in South Florida.”

Therefore, Henry added, he expects the positivity rate to decline over the next couple of weeks.

This is the April 20 COVID-19 case update from the state. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee

In regard to the spread of variant cases in the state, he noted, numbers also have been rising.

Altogether, he said, the latest data show 6,111 cases of variants have been reported in the state, with 55 confirmed in Sarasota County.

The number could be higher, he cautioned the commissioners, because not every person who is tested for COVID-19 is also tested for a variant.

Statewide, 41 deaths from variants have been documented, Henry said.

The UK variant remains most dominant in Florida, he added, with 5,413 cases. Of the two California variants — which were not even a factor in the state until about two weeks ago, he continued — the case counts were 279 and 205.

This is the latest data about variant cases in the state and county. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health in Sarasota

Clinic updates

In regard to the clinics at Sarasota Square Mall: Henry reported that the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County (DOH-Sarasota) continues to use two spaces in that facility. DOH-Sarasota is conducting walk-up clinics Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 8:30 to 3:30 p.m., he said, while the clinic is open from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Additionally, he told the board, DOH-Sarasota is continuing to provide 1,500 to 2,000 second doses each day.

As more people have been vaccinated, Henry pointed out, he and his staff have been reaching out to leaders of minority populations, large-scale employers, churches and colleges about holding clinics.

Yet, many entities that sought vaccination event opportunities in the past no longer are interested in them, Henry said, because of the widespread availability of vaccine in the community.

Then Henry noted that because he will have doses left from an event at Ringling College, his staff will be holding what Henry has characterized in previous discussions as a “pod” at the mall on Saturday for 16- and 17-year -olds. However, Henry stressed, people need to call to register for that event.

He asked that they use the DOH-Sarasota COVID-19 hotline: 941-861-2883.

Army Spc. Angel Laureano holds a vial of the COVID-19 vaccine at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., on Dec. 14, 2020. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando) via Flickr and Wikimedia Commons

“We will accept walk-ups,” he added. Yet, because he will be using the Pfizer vaccine, which has the most stringent handling protocols, it will “really help us know how much vaccine to have prepared” for that clinic by asking for registrations.

He noted that, as of this time, the Pfizer vaccine is the only one authorized for use in 16- and 17-year-olds. However, by summer, Henry told the board members, he expects to see that vaccine approved for use in youngsters age 12 and up.

Moreover, he said, both Pfizer and Moderna are working on trials with the goal of winning approval for vaccinating children as young as 6.

In response to a question, Henry said DOH-Sarasota staff would be asking the Sarasota County School District to help publicize the Saturday, April 24, event by sending out a notice on the automated communication system the district uses for students and parents.