‘Vaccines work,’ county Health Officer stresses to Venice City Council during COVID update

Sarasota Memorial Hospital expands ICU capacity to 101 beds on Aug. 26 and reports 29 COVID deaths since Aug. 19

This is the latest weekly Florida Department of Health data for Sarasota County. It represents the period of Aug. 13-19. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health

During an Aug. 24 appearance before the Venice City Council, Sarasota County Health Officer Chuck Henry acknowledged, “I probably sound like a broken record” when it comes to what he called “key messages” about the surge in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The top one on his list: “Vaccines work.” Ninety percent of the patients hospitalized in the county that day, he pointed out, were unvaccinated. “This is really a pandemic of the unvaccinated right now in our community,” he added.

“The vaccines are working; they’re working well,” Henry said, calling them “the cheapest mechanism” available for ending the pandemic.

As of Aug. 24, Henry reported, the seven-day COVID-19 positivity average for the county was 16%. In late June, he noted, it had fallen to about 2%. Thus, the latest figure reflects the “tremendous impact this Delta virus has had on our community.”

The daily case average over the previous seven days was 408, he continued. At the end of June, about 16 cases a day were being reported, he added.

In the county, Henry told the council members, 29% of all hospital beds had COVID patients. Data showed that 62% of intensive care unit (ICU) beds had COVID patients in them, he noted.

“Many people say to me, ‘Well, that’s not so bad; there’s still plenty of room [in the hospitals],’” Henry continued. However, he explained, the business models on which hospitals operate usually call for them to have occupancy rates of 80% to 90%. Therefore, he stressed, when about 30% of the regular beds, plus 62% of the ICU beds are full, that situation “begins to have big impacts.”

Henry emphasized, “People are not in and out of the hospital in one day,” adding that health officials’ “biggest concern” is overwhelming the hospitals.

On Aug. 20, Sarasota Memorial Hospital reported a total of 256 COVID-positive patients, with 54 in its ICU. At that point, staff had expanded the ICU capacity to 97 beds.

By Aug. 26, the hospital had 271 COVID patients, with 58 in the ICU. The capacity of the ICU had been expanded to 101 beds just that day, SMH’s website indicated.

This is part of the Sarasota Memorial Hospital COVID-19 patient update on Aug. 26. Image courtesy SMH

Since Aug. 19, SMH also has reported 29 deaths of COVID patients, its website updates show.

Because of worries about how fast ICUs have been filling up, Henry pointed out to the Venice Council, most hospitals have ceased elective surgery. They also are dedicating what normally would be recovery room beds to ICU uses.

Henry did tell the council, “I think we’re nearing a level where we might say things are leveling off. The unknowns are how long we’ll stay at this high level before things begin to drop.”

Vaccination status

These are vaccination statistics for Sarasota County compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Image from the CDC website

About 70% of the county population has had one shot of a vaccine, Henry continued, “which is really excellent.”
For the Venice area, he noted, about 90% of the population has been vaccinated.

As he has reminded the county commissioners in past months, Henry told the Venice Council members that the number of residents age 65 and older represents about 37% of the total population in the county, and 95% to 98% of then are fully vaccinated.

In regard to those age 40 and younger, Henry acknowledged, “We struggle to get above 50% vaccinated …”
Close to 40% of those who are ages 12 to 18 have been vaccinated, he continued.

Although the Health Department is not delivering 4,000 doses of vaccine a day, as was common when it was using clinics at Sarasota Square Mall, Henry said that vaccine is available Monday through Friday at the department’s offices located at 2200 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota and at 6950 Outreach Way in North Port. (The hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., with no appointment necessary, G. Steve Huard, the department’s public information officer, reminds residents routinely.)

This graphic shows the ‘key messages’ to the community regarding COVID-19. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County

Booster shots are being made available to persons who have compromised immune systems, including cancer patients, persons who are taking “heavy-duty steroids,” and individuals with HIV, Henry added. People do need to bring their shot cards, he pointed out, so the Health Department staff can ensure that someone who received a Pfizer vaccine, for example, will get a Pfizer booster.

Henry emphasized the need to ensure an individual gets a booster of the same type of vaccine the person originally received.

Within approximately eight months, he noted, boosters will be available, as well, to individuals without underlying health issues, just to strengthen their immune systems.

“We continue to do pop-up efforts focused on our minority populations,” Henry told the council members. “Statistically, they lag behind.”
About 40% of the Hispanic members of the community are vaccinated, he said; for African American residents, the figure is approximately 38%.

These are more data for Sarasota County, provided by the CDC. Image courtesy CDC

“We are doing outreach continually through churches, medical providers” and community organizations, he noted. However, because of demands on his staff, he pointed out, he requires that at least 20 people be signed up for such a clinic before he schedules it. Otherwise, he added, he would be wasting staff resources.

Henry explained that it takes much time and effort to set up the clinics: “a lot of logistics.”

He also urged people who think they might be sick to get tested, reminding the council members that tests are available at the former Sarasota Kennel Club, located at 5400 Old Bradenton Road in Sarasota, as well as at the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex parking lot in Sarasota (1845 34th St.), and at Dallas White Park in North Port (5900 Greenwood Ave.)

“We’re monitoring testing demand,” Henry added. If it remains high, he said, he and his staff may try to find more county sites where routine testing can be offered.

In terms of protection from the virus, Henry also advised the council members to practice social distancing and wear masks indoors, especially if they are in groups with people who many not be vaccinated. “We are seeing breakthrough cases [that resulted from] crowded events.”

Masks outdoors generally are not needed, Henry added.

Anyone who is sick should stay home, he stressed. Case investigators for the Health Department have “run into workforce outbreak issues” in which employees who thought they had mild colds or allergy problems were positive for COVID, so the employees ended up exposing “everybody they were around,” Henry pointed out.

“We’re really pushing the message for people to stay home if they’re sick,” he emphasized.

The monoclonal antibody treatment

Health Officer Chuck Henry addresses the county commissioners on April 7. File image

Monoclonal antibodies, which Henry called “readymade antibodies to protect you if you’re early in your illness,” or if a person is at high risk for illness if exposed to COVID-19, are available at two facilities near Sarasota County.

One is located in the former Emergency Room of Manatee Memorial Hospital in Bradenton, which stands at 206 Second St. East, as the hospital had constructed a new ER, Henry explained.

The newest treatment center is at Tringali Park in Charlotte County, he noted. The facility, which is located at 3460 N. Access Road in Englewood, is in a community center, he said; it shares the site with a library. Henry cautioned that the library staff is warning anyone who has COVID to be certain to go to the correct facility, which is made clear by signage, and not come into the library.

Persons also may visit https://floridahealthCOVID19.gov for a list of sites offering monoclonal antibodies, he said.

“It is free,” he added of the treatment, but it is provided only to individuals who qualify for it, based on symptoms. A person may phone to make an appointment, he noted. (Information about appointments is available at this link.)

When Mayor Ron Feinsod asked Henry to explain the differences between the monoclonal antibody treatments and getting vaccinated, Henry pointed out that all vaccines elicit a response from the human immune system, prompting it to create antibodies. “That … natural process takes time.”

Typically, Henry continued, a person does not have protection from a vaccination until about two weeks after getting a shot. With the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, he noted, a second dose was necessary for immunity.

Venice Mayor Ron Feinsod. Image courtesy City of Venice

With the monoclonal antibody treatment, Henry said, a person gets a shot under the skin or a dosage delivered intravenously. The treatment works immediately to fight COVID, he added.

However, the monoclonal antibodies are not permanent, he pointed out. Usually, he said, it takes about two weeks before they naturally are filtered out of an individual’s bloodstream.

Moreover, Henry noted, a person cannot get vaccinated against COVID for about 90 days after being treated with monoclonal antibodies

“Vaccines are the way forward,” Henry emphasized. “[They are] the best available treatment at the lowest cost. … They prevent illness in a large proportion of the population.” If a person does end up contracting COVID, he added, the case usually will be mild; the person may be asymptomatic.

“Let’s keep people from getting sick in the first place,” Henry told the council members.

When The Sarasota News Leader asked county staff this week why Henry did not make a presentation to the County Commission — since it was conducting its first set of meetings since it took its annual summer break — Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester provided this statement on Aug. 26: “Mr. Henry’s COVID-19 updates are scheduled for every other regularly scheduled county commission meeting. Information is also regularly provided to commissioners through email, Emergency Operations Center flash reports, or by speaking directly with Mr. Henry and Emergency Management staff. Mr. Henry may also present updates to the board when it is necessary to do so.

“Sarasota County continues to collaborate with Mr. Henry and the staff with the Florida Department of Health – Sarasota to keep the community informed,” the statement added.