County Health Officer advises even fully vaccinated people to continue to take precautions in ‘mixed-company’ settings
Because the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County (DOH-Sarasota) has been working through the last of the persons registered in the county Everbridge system for COVID-19 vaccinations, the department will offer two walk-up opportunities at Sarasota Square Mall on Friday and Saturday.
That was what county Health Officer Chuck Henry called “really exciting news” as he provided the County Commission an update on April 7.
People with appointments still will receive their vaccinations at the end of the week at the mall, as planned, a county news release points out. However, anyone who is 18 and older who would like a shot can come to the mall between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. on April 9 and 10, the release says.
“We’re hopeful we’ll have a great turnout for that,” Henry told the commissioners on April 7.
A separate line will be set up at the mall for those without appointments, the news release notes. Individuals who receive their first doses during the DOH-Sarasota walk-up clinics will be provided second-dose appointment dates, the release emphasizes, but they will not receive second-dose notifications, as those signed up in the county registration system will. “These individuals should pay close attention” to the information packet they will receive at the vaccination clinic,” the release says, and they should continue to monitor the DOH-Sarasota and county websites, along with county social media.
Additionally, as of Monday, April 12, the county registration system no longer will accept new accounts, the news release points out. Persons who are registered still will be able to check their accounts, “and the system will continue to schedule appointment notifications through the existing list of registrants,” the news release notes.
During Henry’s April 7 presentation to the County Commission, Commissioner Christian Ziegler voiced concerns that younger people are less likely to pay attention to the news because of work, family and community demands. Moreover, Ziegler said, “For months, all we heard was ’65 and up,’ ’65 and up can get their vaccine.’” It takes time, he added, for younger people to become aware of their eligibility.
Therefore, Ziegler suggested that Henry and the DOH-Sarasota staff would be more successful in establishing clinics in specific locations that would be open for at least a week. For example, Ziegler said, “If you have a place on Main Street in Sarasota, the word’s going to slowly trickle out. … I would encourage you to get more … standalone sites throughout the county … that are there for a long time.”
Then, Ziegler continued, he expected word would spread among individuals in his age group, so they would be more likely to take advantage of such an opportunity to get vaccinated.
Commissioner Ron Cutsinger concurred with Ziegler on keeping pop-up clinics or other new sites open for longer periods, “so word gets out.”
Henry emphasized that he and other staff members are working on a variety of ideas to try to facilitate the delivery of vaccine.
Cutsinger also asked about the potential of DOH-Sarasota providing vaccinations at the locations of major companies in the county, such as PGT in Venice. That way, Cutsinger said, employees could get their doses as they arrive for work.
“We already have existing closed pod agreements [with major employers, such as PGT],” Henry responded. However, up to this point, he continued, DOH-Sarasota has not had sufficient vaccine to pursue the type of opportunities Cutsinger mentioned.
With the transition beginning next week, Henry said, “We’ll be able to do some of those things.”
In regard to 16- and 17-year-olds getting vaccinated: When Gov. Ron DeSantis issued his Executive Order allowing persons 18 and older to get their shots, Henry explained, county staff “saw a whole bunch of 16- to 17-year-olds registered [in the county system],” even though they were not eligible.
Through 5 p.m. on April 12, Henry continued, anyone who is 16 or 17 will be able to register in the Everbridge system. Then, after 5 p.m. on Monday, when the system closes, he added, those teens still will be able to register for shots by calling the DOH-Sarasota hotline: 941-861-2883.
The Pfizer vaccine is the only one the federal government has approved for persons younger than 18, Henry added. Therefore, DOH-Sarasota staff will separate out those persons who have registered who are 16 and 17 and offer them vaccinations in batches, he added.
He has to get Pfizer from other counties, Henry pointed out, because it has to be stored at a “super cold” level. The Pfizer vaccine comes in six-dose vials, he continued. “You have seven days to use it after you remove it from the freezer,” he said, and each vial must be used up within 6 hours after the vial has been opened. Therefore, DOH-Sarasota will schedule appointments for 16- and 17-year-olds in groups of six.
The latest data
As for the most recent county COVID-19 data: Henry called it “tremendous news” that, as of that morning, 197,149 county residents — 45% — had received at least one dose of a vaccine. Almost 86,000 have had just a single dose, he added, while 111,291 “have completed their series.” Thus, Henry pointed out, more residents finally have moved into the latter category.
Moreover, Henry said, over 82% of those age 65 and older have had both their shots. Therefore, he noted, that age group is close to what health and medical personnel consider “herd immunity,” which generally is a range of 80% to 85%.
He added of that group’s vaccination status, “I think that’s the third highest [mark] in the state right now.”
Additionally, he said, 68% of those in the county who are age 50 and older have been vaccinated, which is the second highest level for a county in the state.
“We probably need to get at least 100,000 more people vaccinated before we get to that spot where we’re feeling better as a community,” Henry told the board members.
Among other statistics, Henry reported that the 14-day COVID-19 positivity rate was 5.6%, based on the latest figures. That compared to 4.02% when he previously was in front of the board, on March 23, he said. “We’ve inked up a full percentage point there.”
Henry added that he and his staff believe the uptick is linked to “a significant amount of travel,” both by county residents and visitors coming into the county over the spring break period.
The new case rate average per week has climbed a bit, as well, to 296, Henry continued, compared to 224 in late March. The county is averaging 80 to 90 new cases a day, Henry added. Previously, that number “was down in the 60 level.”
Thanks to better treatments and vaccinations, Henry said, the hospitalization rate in the county remains little changed from two weeks ago. As of the previous day, he continued, 49 people with COVID-19 were reported to be in the county’s four acute-care hospitals; in his March 23 update, that figure was 48.
On April 6, he added, 12 people with COVID-19 were being treated in intensive care units, compared to 10 two weeks ago. “We remain pretty rock steady on where we are going with our hospitals.”
Altogether, Henry reported, as of the April 5 data from the state, 29,929 COVID-19 cases had been recorded in the county, along with 1,303 hospitalizations and 793 deaths. Of the latter, he noted, 394 occurred among residents of elder care facilities. New cases in such complexes, he added, “are dropping rapidly,” because of vaccinations.
In regard to infections in general, “We think things are slowing down,” Henry told the commissioners. However, he stressed, “There’s still great reason for us to be cautious, as a community, moving forward.”
Henry pointed to the latest data about the variants of the virus — mutations — that have produced infections in Florida. “That’s where, from a public health perspective,” he said, “we’re concerned …”
The variants could lead to higher rates of hospitalization or more rapid spread of the disease.
Two weeks ago, he continued, slightly more than 1,000 cases linked to the variants had been recorded in Florida. The latest data he had showed a total of 3,616, he noted. Of those, 32 had been reported in Sarasota County, he said.
Moreover, Henry added, California variants have begun to show up in the state. “Those didn’t exist on my previous slides,” he pointed out, referring to his March 23 presentation. The most recent tally showed 151 cases of one of the California variants in Florida, he added, and 164 cases of the other.
“California struggled over the last month with super high case loads and overwhelmed hospitals,” Henry told the board.
On a positive note, he continued, “So far, the vaccines seem to be very effective against all of the variant strains.”
Referring to case counts in general, Commissioner Ziegler cited figures he had found, which showed that Lafayette County has the highest number per 10,000 people: 1,849. Miami-Dade is in second place, he noted, with 1,600 per 10,000 people.
Of the 67 counties in Florida, Ziegler pointed out, Sarasota is ranked No. 61, with 682 cases per 10,000 residents. That figure, he said, is not far above Flagler County, which stands at No. 67, having only 595 cases per 10,000 people.
Sarasota County has approximately 435,000 residents, Chair Alan Maio noted.
Are precautions still necessary for the fully vaccinated?
In response to questions from Commissioner Nancy Detert, Henry talked about his routine monitoring of new medical research data, along with the updates provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
People who have completed their vaccination series — whether they have had two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or a single Johnson & Johnson dose — and have waited two full weeks after the final shot — can feel safe meeting without masks in small social settings with other persons who have been fully vaccinated, Henry said.
However, he pointed out, because so many questions remain about the efficacy of the vaccines, persons who know they will be going into what Henry characterized as “mixed company” situations should continue to wear masks and practice social distancing.
In Sarasota County, he pointed out, 26 “breakthrough cases” have been reported thus far. That means that someone who has had at least one dose of a vaccine, or someone who has completed the series, “still acquired COVID. … Any vaccine can be overcome,” he emphasized, if a person who has completed the vaccination series is subjected to a strong enough viral load.
Detert talked of going into grocery stores and seeing people without masks. “I don’t know if they’re just being rude,” she added, though she said she guesses, if they appear to be 65 or older, that they may be fully vaccinated.
“For now,” Henry replied, if he is going into any setting — such as a library or grocery store — where he cannot be sure everyone present has been fully vaccinated — “I’ll be wearing a mask.”
Social distancing, mask wearing and “frequent and vigorous hand washing” should continue for a few more months, Henry told the commissioners. “I think we’re almost across the finish line.”
He stressed that if the virus is not controlled at this point, “We could be [taking precautions] for a longer period of time …”