Health Officer quizzed about when battle against novel coronavirus can be considered to have been won
As of Feb. 22, 17% of Sarasota County residents — 74,402 people — had been vaccinated against COVID-19, Chuck Henry, Sarasota County’s Health Officer, reported to the County Commission this week.
Out of all the doses delivered, he said, 81% have been given to persons age 65 and older.
The Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County (DOH-Sarasota) started out on Dec. 28, 2020 with 3,500 doses of the Moderna vaccine, Henry said. The supply dipped at times, he noted, but the State of Florida has been ramping up the number of doses distributed to the county in the past couple of weeks. DOH-Sarasota received 13,000 first doses this week, Henry noted. “I have about 4,000 second doses, as well,” he pointed out.
One big concern for staff at this point, he emphasized, is that a number of people who signed up for vaccinations through the county’s Everbridge system have received their shots from a different provider and have not deleted their accounts.
County staff has created videos showing how easy it is to take that step, Henry pointed out, and the county Communications staff has been stressing the importance of deletions in recent alerts to the public.
On Feb. 24, when he addressed the board members, Henry noted, staff was up to No. 32,478 in the county registration system. (That had climbed to 32,959 by late afternoon, the county’s website reported.)
As of Feb. 23, Henry told the commissioners, the number of accounts was 142,067. He added that staff believes 30% to 40% of the accounts include second persons, such as spouses.
“Right now,” Henry said, “we have over 100,000 people … that are waiting to get their vaccines.”
In Sarasota County, he added, 37% of the population is 65 and older. Only Charlotte and Sumter counties have higher percentages of seniors, Henry said. In Charlotte, the figure is about 40%, he added; in Sumter, approximately 50%. Yet, he emphasized, those two counties are smaller than Sarasota County.
Commissioner Nancy Detert pointed out, “We’re only on like our second month” of vaccinations.
“Has it only been that long?” Henry responded, prompting laughter from the commissioners.
Based on comments she hears from the public, Detert told him, one would think residents had been waiting two years. “So I think we need to keep that [two-month time frame] in mind. This has not been a long, dragged-out process.”
Moreover, Detert stressed that the county’s registration system — which was established as first-come, first-served basis — “is fair, honest, transparent. … Our only problem is that we’re not getting enough doses.”
“We do not need a spectacle of people being added to a list, or the integrity of the [county] list being changed,” Chair Alan Maio pointed out.
“I think it’s very important that we stick with our registration system,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler concurred.
Numerous news media accounts have focused on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ permitting a clinic for Lakewood Ranch residents last week — with additional doses scheduled for those on a “VIP list” put together by Manatee County Commission Chair Vanessa Baugh. That list included the name of the community’s developer, Rex Jensen, and her name.
“The list is the best way I know to try to be fair to everyone,” Henry said of the county’s vaccination registration system.
County Administrator Jonathan Lewis stressed that staff would not deviate from that list until the amount of vaccine DOH-Sarasota receives is “so prolific” that Henry pleads for other options to ensure all of the doses are delivered in a timely fashion.
“I think for the integrity of the system, and what we told our residents, I think it’s very important that we stick with that message,” Lewis added, referring to the appointment notifications going out to individuals in the order in which they registered.
Henry acknowledged that DOH-Sarasota has received complaints about the necessity of people living in north Sarasota, for example, having to drive to North Port, where staff conducted a clinic last week. Yet, he said, people have had to drive from North Port and Venice to Sarasota to get vaccinated.
When Commissioner Ziegler asked about the potential of a pop-up clinic on Longboat Key, Henry replied that he would prefer to do that when he has plenty of vaccine on hand. He referenced the much longer drive for residents from South County, for example, if they had to head out to Longboat for their shots.
Ziegler also asked about pop-up clinics in Newtown, the historically African American community in the city of Sarasota. He noted his understanding that those events have resulted from “a heavy effort with the churches.”
Then Ziegler pointed to an announcement that the City of Sarasota would conduct a pop-up clinic this weekend.
“The term ‘pop-up’ is just a label we place on a vaccine event [that is in a temporary location],” Henry explained. The first in the county was conducted a couple of weeks ago at the Venice Community Center, he noted.
The North Port clinic, Henry continued, was a collaboration among state leaders, DOH-Sarasota staff and leaders of the City of North Port. DOH-Sarasota provided the 3,000 doses, he said, but state and North Port city officials handled the clinic.
With neighborhood and church-focused events, he said, his focus is on minority populations. “There’s the likelihood of more negative outcomes from this virus” for minorities who contract it, he added.
The state plans to provide vaccine for another Newtown clinic this weekend, Henry continued. That initiative is being coordinated through the Sarasota County Chapter of the NAACP and faith-based organizations, along with the Multicultural Health Institute, which is located on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Sarasota.
In regard to the upcoming City of Sarasota event: Henry explained that city leaders submitted a plan to the state. Then, after DOH-Sarasota received the 13,000 first doses this week, he continued, “We said, ‘Here’s an opportunity to help move all this vaccine out.’” (See the related article in this issue.)
The city will use the county’s registration system, he added.
City leaders are working primarily with volunteers to conduct the clinic, Henry noted. By Feb. 25, he said, DOH-Sarasota staff would make a final decision on whether to proceed with the weekend event. “Every day, things fall further into place.”
Commissioner Ziegler also asked about plans for the “next wave” of vaccinations, after persons 65 and older in the state have received their doses. Gov. DeSantis mentioned law enforcement officers the previous day as candidates for that next group, Ziegler noted. “I’m shocked they haven’t been vaccinated yet.”
DeSantis also mentioned teachers, Ziegler said.
Is DOH-Sarasota staff “looking at maybe partnering with law enforcement agencies” and the Sarasota County School District in preparation for vaccinating those groups, Ziegler asked Henry.
Henry replied that, for those groups, DeSantis is “looking at utilizing the four federal sites” that have been announced as vaccination locations in the state. The closest one to Sarasota County will be in Tampa, Henry pointed out.
He hoped to see “written guidance” on those plans later that day, Henry added, as the governor also mentioned that the teachers would have to be older than 50 to get doses.
DOH-Sarasota does have plans in place with law enforcement agencies, he continued, “when the green light is given.” He added, “Obviously, teachers are a concern around the country and here in Sarasota County.”
When will the pandemic officially be over?
Ziegler and Commissioner Mike Moran also asked Henry about the benchmarks necessary before the easing of precautions that have been stressed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Ziegler said he had heard that April might be the time frame when “herd immunity” has been achieved. “Is that a little bit aggressive?”
“I think we will eventually reach a herd immunity with the vaccine,” Henry replied. Most epidemiologists consider herd immunity to be in effect, he continued, after 75% to 80% of the population has been vaccinated. “So we have quite a ways to go,” given the fact that the county’s vaccination level is about 17%.
Even though persons 65 and older are the ones most likely to suffer more severe illness, including the necessity of treatment in a hospital, Henry said, persons who are 18 to 40 “are responsible for most of the spread …”
Health officials would like to see the transmission level drop to 2%, Henry added, “and maybe all the way down to 1%.”
Based on the latest data, Henry told the commissioners, the 14-day positivity rate for the county is 3.57% “and continues to trend downward.”
The most recent figures showed 69 people with COVID-19 in the county’s acute care hospitals, he said, with 17 of them in intensive care units. At the peak, during the summer, Henry pointed out, about 160 patients were in those hospitals.
Henry also explained concerns regarding the three variants of the virus, noting that those are mutations. The most prevalent in Florida is what is known as the United Kingdom variant, he noted. The other two are the South African and Brazilian variants.
The most recent data show 489 cases of the United Kingdom variant have been identified in Florida, Henry said, but none of them is in Sarasota County. One case of the Brazilian variant has been discovered in a Florida resident, he added, but that was related to travel.
“So far,” he continued, “it appears that, for the most part, vaccines are fairly good against those variants …” However, he pointed out, more questions have been raised about the South African variant’s ability to combat the effectiveness of the vaccines that have received formal approval for delivery to the public.
He noted that researchers have “a long way to go” in their studies. Still, he told the board members, “I don’t think it’s anything for us to panic about right now.”
Henry then emphasized that the best ways to prevent infections are to practice social distancing, wear masks when social distancing is not possible, continue to wash hands thoroughly and stay home when feeling unwell.
As Commissioner Moran questioned Henry about how Henry would define success in the fight against the virus, Moran mentioned that his “first taste of seeing a federal influence with this [pandemic] at the local level” was the Biden Administration’s mandate for use of masks on public transit vehicles.
Henry replied that he talks regularly with personnel at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as Florida Department of Health officials in Tallahassee. He follows their cues on policy and practices, Henry added.
“The virus may never go away,” Henry pointed out. “It may be like influenza.”