Vaccination rate continues to climb in the county
“All of the indications [regarding COVID-19 in the community] are trending down,” Sarasota County Health Officer Chuck Henry told the County Commission this week.
“I think we’ve peaked with the Delta variant surge,” Henry continued on Sept. 8. “We’ve seen it flatten out in the last two weeks …”
That is not a sign that people should relax, Henry pointed out. The number of new cases a day has dropped from nearly 500 a day to 400, he told the commissioners. “But 400 a day is still a lot.”
At the end of May and in early June, Henry said, the average was 15 a day.
Based on U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data that he reviewed on Sept. 7, he continued, COVID-19 patients occupied 53.8% of all Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds in the county. That level had climbed to almost 60%, or slightly above that, in recent weeks, he added.
Altogether, as of Sept. 7, the CDC reported that 30.34% of hospital beds in the county were occupied with COVID patients. “We were up about 36% at one point,” Henry told the commissioners.
On a more positive note, Henry pointed out, “Our vaccine rates continue to climb.” About 72% of county residents have had at least one dose of vaccine, he said. “That’s the fourth highest [rate] of [all] Florida counties.”
For persons in the county age 18 and above, he continued, over 80% are vaccinated. For those 65 and up, the figure is 99%.
“We still have some work to do in the 40-, 50-, 60-year-old range,” Henry added. However, he said, “Those numbers are picking up as well.”
“Vaccines are truly the way forward,” Henry emphasized to the board members.
Referring to the variants of COVID-19, Henry explained that those are a result of the nature of viruses: They mutate. Yet, he added, “So far, all of the variants are being handled by our vaccines.”
The breakthrough cases of COVID-19 in vaccinated people, he explained, generally have been found in persons who have been exposed to high levels of the variant or in those with underlying health problems.
The vaccines have proven very successful in keeping people well, Henry pointed out. If a vaccinated person does become infected, the person typically has less severity of illness and is much less likely to be hospitalized or die.
“We’re doing 60 to 100 [vaccinations] a day [at the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County],” Henry continued, “which is good, but we’d love to do more.”
The department continues to provide pop-up clinics, he noted, as long as at least 20 people have signed up, which is the threshold for making good use of staff resources, he has explained.
He and his staff also are working with churches, nonprofit organizations, medical providers and other community organizations, Henry said, as they have been doing, to provide vaccination opportunities.
Additionally, he noted, the Health Department has continued to collaborate with the Sarasota County School District on clinics specifically for students who are eligible for vaccination. “Because of the success we had in August,” Henry added, he and his staff have continued to conduct Saturday clinics at various schools; those events will continue into early October.
At the top of his last slide for the commissioners, under the heading of Key Messages for our community, was the bullet point, “Vaccines Work!”
More variants can be expected Henry said. However, “As long as vaccines continue to work, they will continue to keep our community safe, so our best bet is to get everybody vaccinated.”
Further, he told the commissioners, “We continue to encourage social distancing,” as well as the wearing of masks when people know they will be in crowds in public places.
Moreover, he noted, new guidance showed up on the CDC website over Labor Day weekend. The CDC is recommending that if an individual is unable to practice social distancing outdoors in crowds, the individual should wear a mask, because the variants spread much more rapidly than the original version of the virus.
Henry told the board members that he and his staff have been getting “a lot of questions” about third doses —booster shots — of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Thus far, federal health officials are limiting boosters to persons who qualify according to specific criteria established by the federal government. For example, he said, persons can get boosters if they are undergoing treatment for cancer, if they have had stem cell transplants, if they have immune-deficiency diseases or if they are taking high doses of steroids.
Based on the latest federal government guidance, Henry continued, a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine will be available in mid- to late September to other persons. (Henry previously has explained that federal government direction thus far is that an individual who received a Pfizer or Moderna vaccination can get a third dose only of the same product.)
“I’m hearing lately that Pfizer may get approval as early as 20 Sept. [for delivery of booster shots to the general population],” he said. The same approval for Moderna is expected later, he added, based on the necessity of that manufacturer to provide all the necessary documentation to federal health authorities.
Commissioner Ron Cutsinger asked whether Henry is considering hosting Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County (DOH-Sarasota) clinics for those third doses, as it did when the vaccines first became available.
“At this point,” Henry replied, he and his staff are not making plans for a “big mall site.” That is because so many outlets for vaccine are in the community, he noted, including CVS and Walgreens stores.
DOH-Sarasota will work with providers to ensure they have doses, Henry added. The department has the type of freezer necessary to store the Pfizer vaccine; it has plenty of those doses and an abundance of Moderna doses, he said.
A second potential strategy, he continued, would be to expand the DOH-Sarasota hours in downtown Sarasota (2200 Ringling Blvd.) and in North Port (6950 Outreach Way), after third doses are approved for the general public.
During his presentation, Henry also pointed out, “We did ramp up testing across our community over the last month. … We had tremendous demand for testing.”
The newest site is Ed Smith Stadium, located at 2700 12th St. in Sarasota. The drive-through facility is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is the only testing site that is available every day of the week, Henry noted, thanks to support of the Baltimore Orioles, which conduct Spring Training there.
Because of the demand, he said, the sites in the county run out of rapid tests from time to time. When that occurs, he added, staff members of the laboratories operating the facilities try to put up signs to notify the public, and then they work to get more of those tests.
In response to a question from Commissioner Christian Ziegler, Henry said that over the past two weeks, the number of tests per day has averaged between 3,000 and 4,000. The highest level was about 5,000, Henry indicated; the lowest, approximately 1,400, but he said that was on a weekend.
During the peak of the previous surge, Henry added, 2,500 to 3,000 tests were given a day.
When Ziegler asked whether many healthy people are getting tested, Henry told him, “I think we have seen more ill individuals getting tested.”
“I do hear anecdotally from the labs,” Henry continued, that they are seeing a significant number of people getting tested before traveling.
However, Henry added, representatives of the labs have reported that they also are seeing “pretty high numbers” of people under 40 and children who are ineligible for the vaccines getting tested after experiencing symptoms of infection.
Monoclonal antibody treatment information offered
Henry noted that the monoclonal antibody treatments for COVID-19 are “a great resource if you’re at risk for severe illness, hospitalization or death.” For the treatment to be effective, however, a person should get it as soon as possible after noticing symptoms of infection, Henry stressed.
“If you’re more than 10 days into your illness,” he added, staff at the facilities delivering the treatment likely will not offer it. “The earlier you get in, the better.”
Treatments are free, he added. One facility is located in the former Emergency Room at Manatee Memorial Hospital in Bradenton, which stands at 206 Second St. East. (The hospital had constructed a new ER, Henry told the Venice City Council on Aug. 24, so the old space was available.)
The newest treatment center is at Tringali Park in Charlotte County, which is located at 3460 N. Access Road in Englewood.
Persons also may visit https://floridahealthCOVID19.gov for a list of sites offering monoclonal antibodies, as shown in a slide Henry presented to the board.
“It’s easy to find appointments,” he added.
The monoclonal antibodies “go to work immediately, attacking the virus,” he explained. They will circulate in the body for a week or two, providing assistance to the immune system as it fights the infection.
Unlike vaccines, Henry pointed out, the monoclonal antibodies do not offer long-lasting protection.
Henry cautioned that if a person has the treatment and wants to get vaccinated later, the person must wait 90 days.
Commissioner Ziegler asked about getting a monoclonal antibody facility established within the county. The board members could help Henry with that process, Ziegler indicated.
State officials looked at sites with between 6,000 and 10,000 square feet, Henry responded, noting that about 14 are located statewide. Given the facilities in Manatee County and Englewood, Henry said, “We’re fairly well covered.”
Sarasota Memorial Hospital also offers the antibodies, he noted.
“If you’re saying we’re covered,” Ziegler told Henry, “I’ll take your word at it, I guess.”
Nonetheless, Ziegler voiced concern that some individuals might be discouraged from seeking treatment because of the distance they would have to travel to those facilities.