With COVID-19 Delta variant raising new concerns, Sarasota Memorial Hospital epidemiologist discusses importance of vaccinations

About 67% of county residents have had at least one dose of vaccine, Health Department reports

A resident of the Newtown community in Sarasota receives a vaccination on Feb. 10. Image courtesy Sarasota Memorial Hospital

With concern growing over the dangers of a COVID-19 variant in the community, the public information officer for the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County (DOH-Sarasota) has told The Sarasota News Leader that, as of July 1, 267,627 people — 67% of Sarasota County residents — have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Steve Huard added in a later email on July 1 that department data show that 31,562 of those people have not received their second doses to date in Sarasota County. “That said,” he continued, “this number is likely artificially high due to duplicate entries in Florida Shots [a state database]. Duplicate entries can happen when someone lists their go-by name versus their legal name,” he explained. Staff has to “go back and verify the data by birthday.”

Moreover, he noted, snowbirds may have received their first doses in the county and then their second doses up North, “and it takes time for the records to come together.”

Although DOH-Sarasota closed its clinic at Sarasota Square Mall at the end of the day on June 24, Huard regularly issues advisories noting that anyone interested in getting a vaccination may visit the DOH-Sarasota facilities in downtown Sarasota or in North Port. No appointments are necessary.

“We have Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson vaccines available” from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday at the 2200 Ringling Blvd. offices in Sarasota and at 6950 Outreach Way in North Port, Huard noted in a June 29 media advisory. Both locations do close from noon to 1 p.m. for lunch, he wrote.

“Additionally, COVID-19 vaccines are available at multiple community outlets,” Huard pointed out. “To find the location nearest you please visit www.vaccines.gov.”

Individuals await their appointments at the Florida Department of Health vaccine clinic at Sarasota Square Mall in mid-February. Image courtesy Sarasota County via a YouTube video

He also reminds the public that anyone who wishes to be tested for COVID-19 may go to the drive-through site that remains open at the former Sarasota Kennel Club, which is located at 5400 Old Bradenton Road in Sarasota, FL 34234. The site is open Monday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Anyone will be tested, he added, “regardless of symptoms.”

In a June 24 news release, Sarasota Memorial Hospital Public Information Officer Kim Savage addressed worries about the “Delta variant” of COVID.19.

“Although the pandemic appears to be subsiding, the U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control and public health experts recently issued a strong warning about the highly transmissible Delta variant and risks to people who are not fully protected by COVID-19 vaccines,” Savage wrote.

“Since it was first identified in Florida on March 16,” she added, “the strain has been doubling every two weeks, raising concerns of people living on the Suncoast.”

Savage also pointed out, “As of June 23, the Delta variant accounted for 20% of all new coronavirus cases in the United States, and experts say it is on its way to becoming the dominant strain of the virus across the nation in the coming weeks.”

Questions and detailed answers

Dr. Manuel Gordillo. Image courtesy Sarasota Memorial Hospital

In light of the situation with the variant, Savage continued in the news release, “We asked Sarasota Memorial epidemiologist and Infectious Disease specialist Manuel Gordillo, MD, to address the most frequently asked questions and share strategies to help those at risk stay safe in the weeks and months ahead.”

The following are the frequently asked questions and Gordillo’s responses:

Is the Delta variant more dangerous than other strains circulating in Florida?

Genetic variants of SARS-CoV-2 have been emerging and circulating around the world throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the Delta variant, first identified in India, is considered the greatest risk at this time to containing the pandemic worldwide. Studies indicate it is 60% more transmissible than the alpha variant (first identified in the United Kingdom), which was more contagious than the original strain that emerged from Wuhan, China, in late 2019.

The CDC has elevated the Delta strain to a “variant of concern,” noting that this mutation of the virus spreads easily and also doesn’t appear to respond as well to monoclonal antibody treatments. And it has led to at least one more mutant strain dubbed the Delta Plus that health officials are monitoring, though have not yet elevated to a “variant of concern.”

Studies in England where the Delta variant has been circulating at least one month earlier than in the U.S show that the Delta strain has resulted in more hospitalizations, but fortunately no more deaths than previous variants.

Have any cases been reported on the Suncoast?

The Delta variant spreads quickly in areas with higher rates of unvaccinated people, so Florida is at risk because of substantial pockets of unvaccinated populations.

Currently, we have no reason to expect it is not circulating on the Suncoast, though no reports have been shared publicly at this time. The Florida Department of Health, with recommendations from the CDC, decides which coronavirus test samples undergo whole genome sequencing to determine whether they’re variant cases and use those results for public health surveillance and epidemiologic investigations.

It’s important to note that individuals who test positive for COVID are advised to take the same precautions of isolation, mask-wearing indoors and hand-washing, regardless of which strain they carry.

Could the Delta variant trigger another surge in infections and hospitalizations?

That definitely is a concern. The Delta variant swept through India this spring, causing a massive surge in cases and thousands of deaths. Since then, it has spread to more than 80 countries, including the U.S.

Though it is gaining momentum, vaccines are driving down coronavirus case numbers in the U.S., and it remains unclear whether the Delta variant will reverse that trend.

If vaccination rates in Florida continue to lag, public health officials project we could see infections start to rise again as soon as July.

The key in preventing outbreaks of the Delta and other variants is getting people fully vaccinated. 

Do all of the COVID-19 vaccines available in the U.S. protect against the delta variant?

All of the vaccines authorized for use in the U.S. appear to provide protection against all the variants, including Delta.

The latest studies reveal that 2 weeks after the Pfizer vaccine is fully administered, it is about 88% effective against the Delta strain. Researchers expect similar results to be announced from Moderna studies. The single dose J&J vaccine appears to be about 60% effective against the Delta strain.

That said, people need to get their second dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine to adequately protect themselves, as a single dose offers significantly less protection than two.

Who is most vulnerable to the delta variant?

The Delta variant is unlikely to pose much risk to people who have been fully vaccinated.

People who are not vaccinated and people who have received just 1 dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine remain at risk, as do those with compromised immune systems.

What should I do if I’ve not been fully vaccinated or have a compromised immune system?

Anyone who is not fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks indoors, use hand sanitizer and practice self-distancing in public places until 2 weeks have passed since their second or final dose.

Vaccinations are recommended in most cases for people with autoimmune diseases and weakened immune systems (for example, people with cancer, autoimmune diseases and those on immune-suppressing medications) as they are at higher risk for severe complications from COVD-19 infection.

Because we do not yet know how effective the vaccines are for immunocompromised people, they should continue to follow all current guidance to protect themselves against COVID-19. Anyone who lives with people who have underlying conditions or is close to them should be vaccinated.

Young kids can’t get vaccinated. What about them?

The Delta variant appears to be worse than the original strain and other variants in terms of contagiousness and severity, but the evidence suggests that serious illness from COVID-19 will continue to be extremely rare in children. Data from England, where the Delta variant is widespread, shows COVID-related hospitalizations of children have risen in recent weeks, but those increases have been modest.

Children ages 12 and older are eligible for the vaccine, and experts agree the benefits far outweigh the risks of contracting COVID-19. For those too young to be vaccinated, we recommend continuing some precautions, like wearing masks indoors or avoiding crowded places.