With Sarasota County COVID-19 positivity rate up two-thirds in a week, Sarasota Memorial infection control chief urging people to get vaccinated

COVID patient counts climbing

This July 21 map, created by Sarasota County staff in collaboration with the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County, shows the distribution of COVID-19 cases by county zip code. Image courtesy Sarasota County and DOH-Sarasota

When Sarasota County Health Officer Chuck Henry appeared before the County Commission on July 14 to provide an update on the COVID-19 pandemic, he noted that the weekly average for admissions to the four county hospitals had climbed to 10.

The 14-day positivity rate for the virus in the county had risen to 5.43%, he pointed out.

On July 21, in response to a Sarasota News Leader question, G. Steve Huard, the public information officer for the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County, wrote that the 14-day positivity average was about two-thirds higher that day than Henry’s figure. The new rate stood at 9.02%, Huard noted.

On July 19, Kim Savage, the public information officer for Sarasota Memorial Hospital (SMH), reported in an email blast that, just a month ago, the number of patients admitted to the hospital for COVID problems “was in the single digits.”

“As of this morning,” she continued, “we had 36 patients hospitalized with COVID. Of those, 7 are in the ICU [intensive care unit].”

Savage also pointed out, “Nearly all recent COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths across the U.S. have been among people who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated, and we are seeing this same trend among our own patients. Many are younger than the patients we previously saw, some even in their 30s.”

Dr. Manuel Gordillo. Image courtesy Sarasota Memorial Hospital

As a result, Dr. Manuel Gordillo, medical director of Sarasota Memorial Infection Prevention and Control, provided details about the latest surge in a video interview with Allison Gottermeier, the multimedia public relations specialist for SMH. Gordillo also underscored the need for people to get vaccinated — just as Health Officer Henry did on July 14.

“Starting about three, maybe four weeks ago,” Gordillo said, “we started seeing the beginning … of a new surge.”
“Going back a month,” he continued, “we had maybe three [COVID] patients in the hospital. Then we started seeing two more, and then two more, and it rapidly escalated.”

“Florida has seen an explosion of cases in the last two or three weeks,” Gordillo pointed out. “We fully expect all of it is Delta,” he added, referring to a mutation that — he stressed — is far more transmissible than the earlier version of the virus.

What was known as the UK variant, he continued, was found to be about 50% easier to catch than the COVID-19 virus that showed up in the United States in late 2019. The Delta variant, Gordillo emphasized, is twice as transmissible as the UK variant.

The Delta variant seeks out the unvaccinated, he explained. Thus, the new surge is what he calls “the epidemic of the unvaccinated.”

On July 16, Jeff Zients, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, pointed out that just four states accounted for more than 40% of all cases in the nation that week, with one in five of those cases identified in Florida. In reporting that comment, the Miami Herald noted, “Florida accounts for roughly 6.5 percent of the total U.S. population, so with 20 percent of the cases stemming from Florida, the new cases are disproportionately higher than the state’s population.”

Zients also reported that most of the cases are occurring in unvaccinated individuals.

Behavioral issues and vaccine aversion

Among other factors fueling the rise in the number of cases, Gordillo continued in the SMH interview, “The big one is behavioral”: People are interacting more regularly with others, especially indoors, he said, without wearing masks. Referring to crowded situations, he pointed out, “That’s a recipe that the virus loves.”

One other factor is seasonal, Gordillo noted: The weather is driving more people indoors.

When Gottermeier asked how concerned he is about the situation, Gordillo replied, “It’s extremely concerning and also very frustrating. … We know we have the tools to protect people. … A lot of vaccine [is] not going into people’s arms.”

This chart, created by Johns Hopkins University staff, shows details about the COVID-19 cases in Sarasota County. It was updated at 6:01 a.m. on July 21. Image courtesy Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center

About 30% of the population in Florida is unvaccinated, Gordillo noted. Some people, he said, are what he calls “vaccine hostile.” Approximately 10% of that group, he believes, can be persuaded to get shots.

When Gottermeier asked for more details about COVID-19 patients in SMH, Gordillo replied that the majority of them “are unvaccinated. I would say the vast majority.”

“If you’re young and healthy,” he continued, “you’re likely not to get severe illness.” However, he pointed out, “You may become the vector of the disease.”

In other words, Gordillo explained, a younger person who gets COVID-19 could transmit the virus to a more vulnerable person. People need to think about the population in general, he said.

Moreover, Gordillo noted that even if a younger person gets sick, “You can still have loss of taste … sometimes for weeks and weeks.” He indicated that he had seen numerous patients with that symptom.

Additionally, in cases known as “long COVID,” he said that a person may have breathing problems that linger for quite some time.

Even persons in their 40s, 50s and 60s can end up in the ICU, “some of them very, very ill,” he pointed out.

This data from Johns Hopkins University shows the total number of vaccination doses given in the United States as of July 22. Image courtesy Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center

The more hesitant people are to get vaccinated, Gordillo stressed, the longer the pandemic will continue, and the longer it continues, the more opportunity for the virus to mutate. “The light at the end of the tunnel,” he said, “is becoming a dim light very far away.”

Most people who have refused to get shots, he added, have cultural, religious and political reasons. He also referenced the spread of misinformation and disinformation, describing some statements he had seen as “bizarre.”

The cultural and political aversions to vaccination seem most dominant, he said.

This graphic from Johns Hopkins University, also updated on July 21, shows the status of ICU beds in Florida. Image courtesy Johns Hopkins University

In response to another question from Gottermeier, Gordillo explained that when “breakthrough cases” do occur in vaccinated individuals, those persons have far fewer problems, and they also have less active virus. The so-called “viral load,” he added, is “much less, by several multiples.”

That also is what the medical community has seen with HIV, Gordillo pointed out. When patients have very little of the virus in their blood, they are not contagious.

In Sarasota County, Gordillo noted, over 90% of seniors have had one shot; over 80% are fully vaccinated. Still, he said, the 10% to 15% who are not vaccinated can end up in the ICU, and they can die.

“I don’t think we’ve reached the peak of this surge,” Gordillo added. It likely will continue for the next two to three weeks, he said. Typically, when a surge is underway, he pointed out, persons will take more precautions, including wearing masks and practicing social distancing.

Nonetheless, he added, the researchers who handle pandemic modeling believe yet another surge is likely in the fall or winter.