County’s COVID-19 positivity rate continues decline at same time demand for vaccine remains at lower level

64% of all county residents 16 and older have been vaccinated, Health Officer tells County Commission

This is the May 16 data for Sarasota County’s testing and positivity rates, which Health Officer Chuck Henry referenced on May 18 in his report to the County Commission. Image from the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee

Along with the COVID-19 positivity rate in Sarasota County, the demand for vaccine continues to decline, county Health Officer Chuck Henry told the Sarasota County commissioners this week.

The latest data show that the 14-day positivity average in the county is 3.84%, he said. That compares to 4.94% two weeks ago when he appeared before the board members, he added. A month ago, he reminded them, “We were at almost 6%.”

The level is “moving rapidly in a great direction,” Henry added.

The case rate per 100,000 people in the county is 159, he continued. “Two weeks ago, we were over 300 there.”

As for hospitalizations: The latest figures showed 32 COVID-19 patients in the county’s four acute-care hospitals, Henry noted, down from 43 two weeks ago. Only five persons were in intensive care units as of early this week, he said, compared to 15 two weeks ago. “We continue to see great progress there in terms of disease in our community.”

Moreover, Henry pointed out, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has lowered the threat of COVID-19 transmission in the county to “Substantial” on its scale, which runs from “High” to “Substantial” to “Moderate” to “Low,” he explained. “We’re actually at the low end of ‘Substantial,’” Henry said, “and about to move into that ‘Moderate’ [level] very soon.”

As he has throughout his presentations to the board, he stressed that people who are not fully vaccinated should continue to practice social distancing and wear face masks when they are in public spaces and in groups where not everyone has been vaccinated.

A person is considered “fully vaccinated” 14 days after receiving his or her second dose, Henry reminded the board members.

Henry also advised the commissioners that people should continue to practice frequent and vigorous hand washing and stay home if they are sick.

These are what Chuck Henry calls his ‘key messages’ to the public in regard to preventing COVID-19 infections. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County

In regard to the vaccination levels in the county: Henry acknowledged, “We’re making progress but not as fast as I’d like to see it happen.”

The Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County — DOH-Sarasota — delivered about 11,000 doses over the past two weeks, he said. That compares to 20,000 to 30,000 doses a week earlier in the year, he added.

Close to 250,000 people in the county have been vaccinated, Henry pointed out.

About a month ago, during a presentation to the commissioners, Henry reported that his mantra had become “300K by Independence Day,” meaning he was hopeful that 300,000 county residents would be vaccinated by July 4. “That’s probably going to be a struggle, as slow as things have gotten,” he said of reaching that mark by that date. “We’re really thrilled if we get a couple thousand [people] a week” at the DOH-Sarasota clinic at Sarasota Square Mall.

The number of fully vaccinated people in the county was 198,865, according to the latest state data as of May 18, Henry continued. “That’s a really good number.”

Of persons 16 and older, 64% had been vaccinated, he said, which is the second-highest level in the state. Of those 50 and older, 79% had been vaccinated; and of those 65 and older, the figure was 88%.

However, Henry pointed out, vaccination rates among Black and Hispanic residents continue to trend lower. Among Blacks, he said, the vaccination rate is about 40% for those 16 and older. Special outreach efforts are underway for Hispanic residents, he added, as their rate is even lower.

This May 16 chart shows the breakdown of vaccine distribution in Sarasota County. Image from the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee

“We’re working with any partners we can connect with,” he said, in terms of delivering doses to minority residents.

In his update on cases caused by mutations of the COVID-19 coronavirus — variants, as they are known — Henry reported that the county is up to 128, reflecting 33 more cases than he cited in his update two weeks ago. “Not a huge surprise or a concern,” was how he characterized that data.

The primary reason his staff continues to track those figures, he pointed out, is to determine whether the variants are causing more rapid progression of the disease in patients, more hospitalizations or more deaths. One other concern, he added, is whether the vaccines will continue to protect people against contracting the variants.

“Almost all of our cases have been the UK variant, which is the most common in Florida,” Henry noted. Fourteen county cases have resulted from the California variants, he added, while — for the first time — the Brazilian variant has been responsible for illness, with two cases identified.

The clinics questions

“Probably our most successful” DOH-Sarasota clinic at Sarasota Square Mall clinic in recent weeks occurred on May 15, Henry pointed out, when the department was providing Pfizer doses to youngsters as young as 12.

The clinic ended up delivering 932 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, with 805 of those going to minors, he said. Some parents were vaccinated along with their children, he added.

The clinic also delivered 360 Moderna doses that day.

Another clinic for youth 12 and older is planned for Saturday, May 22, Henry noted.

The hours will be from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Sarasota Square Mall, which is located at 8201 S Tamiami Trail in Sarasota.

“This no-appointment walk-in clinic will provide Pfizer first doses, and Pfizer second doses to those vaccinated on or before May 1st,” DOH-Sarasota Public Information Officer Steve Huard wrote in an email advisory to the news media. “Students with both doses of the Pfizer vaccine will not be quarantined out of school or sports if they are exposed to Covid-19 unless they show symptoms,” he pointed out.

“A parent or guardian must accompany anyone under 18 years of age and must sign a consent form. Consent forms are required and are available on-site.”

“Additionally,” Huard continued, “we will have Moderna vaccine available … for those age 18 and older who would like it and those who are at or past their 28th day to receive a second dose of vaccine.”

The clinics for youth 12 and older are possible because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last week approved the emergency use of the Pfizer vaccine for youth younger than 16.

This graphic provides more details about vaccination data in Sarasota County. Image from the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County

Referring to the Sarasota Square Mall clinic, Commissioner Nancy Detert pointed out, “We can’t keep it open forever.”

Her fear, she said, is that people who have procrastinated in regard to getting vaccinated, and those who have been undecided about it, will be upset when the mall site closes. “If you have a hard deadline,” she told Henry, “please publish that well in advance.”

“I don’t think we’re there yet,” Henry said of plans to close the clinic. “I think we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.” He added that he would not consider closing the mall site until it was serving 50 or fewer people a day. Moreover, he reminded Detert of the need to deliver second doses 28 to 30 days after first doses.

Detert also asked whether the DOH-Sarasota offices in downtown Sarasota will have vaccine available after the mall clinic eventually closes.

“Absolutely,” Henry responded. Staff hopes to be able to provide the Pfizer vaccine, too, at its Ringling Boulevard site, he added. Although DOH-Sarasota has not had the extremely cold storage facilities necessary to keep the Pfizer vaccine, he explained, “We’re working toward that,” especially with the expectation that the FDA will approve the use of that vaccine for ages 5 and up by some point in the summer.

Nonetheless, Henry told Detert, “We’ll make sure everyone’s well aware of [the mall clinic’s eventual closing], to the extent that we can control that.”

This is the latest variant data for Sarasota County. Image from the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County

Commissioner Christian Ziegler brought up a point he has raised in the past: his desire to see walk-in clinics in downtown Sarasota, as well as in Venice and North Port, that would be open at least for a couple of weeks. The mall site is just too far for many people to drive, Ziegler said, especially if they work regular jobs. “If you make it easy for them,” he told Henry, more people will get vaccinated.

“One of the big challenges with COVID vaccines,” Henry replied, is that they come in multi-dose vials. “No one wants to waste a dose of vaccine.”
With storefront clinics, Henry continued, the degree of demand would be uncertain. Yet, vials of vaccine have to be thrown away if they are not used within a certain period of time, he told Ziegler. “We’re very careful about planning events …”

“I just think that it’s going to be hard,” Ziegler said, for working people “trying to put food on the table” who live in North Port or Englewood, for examples, to make it to Sarasota Square Mall.

After Henry pointed out that the DOH-Sarasota staff is continuing to organize pop-up clinics at various county locations, Ziegler told him that younger workers are “frankly too busy” to check the county website or newspapers to find out when and where such clinics are being held.

Then Henry noted that DOH-Sarasota recently partnered with the City of North Port for a clinic at the George Mullen Activity Center, which was open for about six hours, “[We] had 12 people show up for vaccines.”
“That’s crazy,” Ziegler responded.

“So it may be a struggle,” Henry said of trying to provide city clinics for longer periods of time.

When Ziegler asked about the potential of combining COVID-19 testing sites with clinics, Henry explained that the testing sites are planned for people who believe they are sick. It would be a necessity, Henry pointed out, to keep a testing area well away from the portion of a site where vaccines were being administered. “They’re probably not a good mix together.”

Last week, DOH-Sarasota staff announced that the two testing sites in the county — the R.L. Taylor Community Complex in North Sarasota and the former Kennel Club, located at 5400 Old Bradenton Road in Sarasota, would be closing.

However, Henry noted on May 18 that DOH-Sarasota had been working with the provider at the former Kennel Club site — Nomi Health — to keep that open.

DOH-Sarasota Public Information Officer Huard sent out an advisory on May 17 that said, “We have been advised that the drive-thru COVID-19 testing site located at the former Sarasota Kennel Club, 5400 Old Bradenton Rd, Sarasota, FL 34234, will remain open.

“This site is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and will test anyone regardless of symptoms,” Huard added.

Henry told the commissioners that CVS and Walgreens stores also provide testing for free, even if someone does not have health insurance.