Vaccinations continue to be best means of preventing serious illness and death, county Health Officer tells County Commission
The COVID-19 positivity rate has continued to decline in Sarasota County since Sept. 8, the last time he appeared before the County Commission prior to this week, county Health Officer Chuck Henry reported.
The night of Oct. 11, when he checked the website of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Henry said on Oct. 12, he found the positivity rate for the previous seven days in the county was 4.94%.
(On Oct. 13, it was down again, the CDC noted, to 4.64%, The Sarasota News Leader found in checking the federal agency’s website. By Oct. 14, it was lower still: 4.53%.)
On Sept. 8, Henry reminded the commissioners, the positivity rate was 18%.
Additionally, he pointed out on Oct. 12, the number of new cases in the county over the previous seven days was 356, and the case rate per 1,000 people had dropped to 82.08. The latter figure was almost half the level of 154 that he reported on Sept. 8, he said.
Further, the percentage of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients had fallen to 10.15%, compared to 30% about a month ago, Henry added. The figure for intensive care unit (ICU) beds with COVID patients was at the 36.18% mark, he noted, compared to almost 54% a month ago.
“Vaccines continue to creep upward,” Henry said, though the pace is “slower than I would like.” The latest data showed 74% of county residents had had at least one dose, he pointed out, compared to 71.9% a month ago. “Small increase, but, nonetheless, an increase.”
“Variants continue to be a concern,” Henry told the board members. However, the vaccines have remained effective against them thus far, he added. The best prevention against variants, he stressed, is vaccination. “[Vaccines] have been very, very successful at preventing serious illness and hospitalization.”
The Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County (DOH-Sarasota) continues to provide pop-up clinics around the county, Henry noted. However, as he has explained in the past, at least 20 people must sign up for one of those events to ensure that his staff makes efficient use of its time and resources.
The department also is “beginning to ramp up” its outreach to medical providers in the community, Henry said, so they will have sufficient stock whenever the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are approved for boosters and the Pfizer vaccine is approved for use in children ages 5 to 11.
Henry showed the board members another slide noting the criteria for persons to receive Pfizer boosters. For example, individuals age 65 and older are eligible, he said, as well as those who are age 18 and older who work or live in high-risk settings. Among those workers, Henry pointed out, are firefighters, emergency medical technicians, police officers and teachers.
Thus far, Pfizer is the only vaccine approved for booster shots, he said. However, the FDA was scheduled to meet before the end of this week to consider approving Moderna and Johnson & Johnson boosters, Henry noted. If the FDA gives its approval, he continued, a CDC group is expected to meet next week to determine whether it will concur with the FDA. Thus, he said, it is possible that Moderna and Johnson & Johnson boosters could be available as early as next week.
Among his key messages, Henry emphasized once more, “Vaccines continue to be our most important tool to keep our community safe.”
He is most concerned, he added, about what will happen in January 2022, after holiday travel for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Because of Sarasota County’s high level of tourism, he pointed out, if new variants are circulating, they could be expected to arrive in the community with visitors. “Our world is so mobile.”
Henry also advised the commissioners that even vaccinated people should wear masks if they are indoors and are unable to practice social distancing, especially in large groups including people who likely are unvaccinated.
Because the CDC has downgraded the transmission level in the county from “High” to “Substantial,” he added, people do not need masks when they are outside.
“We hope to be moving into the “Moderate” [level] soon,” Henry said of the CDC levels.
When Commissioner Christian Ziegler asked why Henry thought the vaccination level is so high in the county, Henry replied that Sarasota County is among the top five counties in the state for the number of vaccinated residents. Henry said he attributed that partly to the fact that 37% of the county’s population is older than 65 and, therefore, more vulnerable to becoming seriously ill after infection.
Moreover, Henry added, he believes that fears about the Delta variant — which produced the most recent surge — were an incentive for people to get vaccinated.
“I think age is probably the biggest factor,” Henry said, combined with DOH-Sarasota’s efforts to make vaccine widely available in the county.
“If this vaccine has to be re-administered every year like the flu shot, how is that going to work?” Ziegler asked.
Will it be necessary for DOH-Sarasota to open clinics as it did earlier this year at Sarasota Square Mall, for example?, Ziegler added.
“I don’t think the scenario is there yet to support that direction,” Henry replied. Because the virus is so new, he explained, medical science has no clear conclusions about how it should be handled in the coming months. Doctors are monitoring the people who were vaccinated in the earliest trials, Henry added, to see how their immune systems are working against COVID-19 and its variants.
Ziegler told Henry he is worried about the potential of an emergency situation, with county staff having to scramble to set up large clinics once again.
(Henry noted that DOH-Sarasota was administering up to 40,000 vaccinations a week — half of them first doses — in the first few months of 2021, after the FDA and CDC gave clearance for the shots.)
“My gut is that it’s going to be quite a bit smoother” than the situation early this year, Henry told Ziegler, because of the vaccination rate in the county.
Trends at Sarasota Memorial Hospital and other data
On Oct. 13, Sarasota Memorial Health Care System staff posted the following on the hospital’s Facebook page: “Today, SMH is caring for 61 hospitalized patients with COVID-19, a dramatic decrease from our peak census this summer.”
The post further noted, “A look at the vaccination rate among our inpatients makes it clear that COVID-19 vaccines continued to protect patients from severe illness & reduce hospitalizations.”
Then the post pointed out, “Among those critically ill patients in the ICU [that day] — 90% are NOT vaccinated. Among those requiring ventilators — 89% are NOT vaccinated.”
Finally, the post said, “Among all patients hospitalized with COVID — 84% [on Oct. 13] are NOT vaccinated.”
On Sept. 24, Sarasota Memorial had 137 COVID-19 patients, 54 of whom were in the ICU.
By Sept. 30, the total number of COVID patients was down to 97, with 53 of them receiving care in the ICU.
As of Oct. 14, SMH had 59 COVID-19 patients, 30 of whom were in the ICU, the staff reported.
Additionally, staff had been able to reduce the ICU bed capacity to 81; on Sept. 28, staff had had to increase the capacity to 104 beds.
Between Sept. 24 and Sept. 30, the hospital recorded 14 deaths linked to COVID-19. From Oct. 1 to Oct. 14, another 20 patients had died, as indicated in SMH’s weekday updates.
The Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee is continuing to release COVID-19 updates just once a week. In the latest report released prior to The Sarasota News Leader’s publication deadline this week — for the period of Oct. 1-7 — the state said that the county had had a total of 54,595 cases since the pandemic began. During that first week of October, 372 new cases were identified.