With COVID-19 rates climbing this month, health professionals are working to slow the spread and sort out issues with vaccine distribution.
Chuck Henry is concerned about the trends he sees in the COVID-19 data for Sarasota County.
Henry, administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County, briefed the County Commission on COVID-19 matters at the board’s meeting Wednesday. In addition to updating commissioners on rising positivity rates and case volumes, Henry also shared information about efforts to distribute COVID-19 vaccines, which has drawn criticism from residents who have been unable to secure appointments to get inoculated.
The seven-day positivity rate for COVID-19 tests in Sarasota rose above 8% on Jan. 5, peaking at 8.5% before falling to 7.71% as of Wednesday, according to state data. That is the highest positivity rate in months, up from 2.5% to 4% in September. Henry noted that Sarasota is averaging more than 220 new cases daily in January, a record high.
“We know that there’s a lot of virus circulating around our community right now, probably more than we’ve seen throughout this pandemic,” Henry said.
Henry said the rising case numbers are likely in part connected to behavior during the recent holiday season. Henry also suggested that fatigue and complacency might play a factor.
“We continue to encourage everyone to do the right things, but we’ve been in this for 11-plus months, and people are getting tired of those things, no doubt,” Henry said.
Although Henry said the data was “a little bit alarming,” some county commissioners sought to recontextualize the information. Commissioner Mike Moran questioned the use of case volume as a key data point in Henry’s presentation, asserting that it was important to focus on positivity rate, a statistic that accounts for testing volume. Henry agreed that test volume was useful information, but he said all data for Sarasota County is trending upward.
Commissioner Christian Ziegler asked for hospitalization numbers, which Henry said are short of the peaks Sarasota saw in the summer. At Sarasota Memorial Hospital, there were 79 patients Wednesday who had tested positive for COVID-19, 15 of whom were in intensive care. SMH reported that 87.4% of its hospital beds and 77.8% of ICU beds were occupied.
Henry said advancements in treatment have likely contributed to lower hospitalization rates, but hospital space is in short supply during peak season, so the health department is stressing the importance of limiting the spread. Ziegler asked whether preventing overrun at community hospitals was the goal of the health department’s COVID-19 strategy.
“For me, the underlying goal is to reduce infection and keep the community safe,” Henry said.
Unlike previous periods when Sarasota reported high COVID-19 rates, local officials are not discussing any major policy changes designed to limit the spread of the disease. A September executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis limited local governments’ ability to implement regulations, such as mask requirements or business closures. In an email, a city spokesperson said city administration had no plans to change the COVID-19 policy in place.
At Wednesday’s County Commission meeting, Ziegler pointed out Sarasota’s positivity rate is lower than the state average, which has recently been higher than 10%. Despite Henry’s concerns, Ziegler suggested Sarasota’s data would influence officials as they consider whether policy changes are warranted.
“It’s one thing to say your numbers are high, and all this stuff’s happening, but if it’s high around the country and across the state, we’re limited in how much impact we can have,” Ziegler said.
Henry emphasized he wasn’t saying there’s cause for alarm, but he also said vigilance is important because of the effects COVID-19 can have in communities that fail to slow the spread. Commissioner Al Maio echoed Henry’s call for the public to continue to adhere to safety protocols.
“You do not want your loved ones mad at you because you didn’t wear a mask when you were out and about, and you were one of the last people to die before you got the vaccine,” Maio said. “For heaven’s sakes, wear the damn mask.”
County commissioners were relieved to learn the health department is working to replace the system it’s using to schedule vaccination appointments.
The health department’s use of Eventbrite, a ticketing website, has drawn criticism. Henry said the department is facing a challenge because of the degree to which demand outweighs supply: More than 150,000 people in Sarasota are in the first category eligible to receive a vaccine, which includes those over 65 and front-line health care personnel. So far, the county has received 5,900 vaccines in three weeks.
“It is like trying to get a ticket for the hot concert,” Henry said.
Henry said the department is working with the state and Sarasota County to set up a new registration system. Henry said a new system would allow residents to place their name on a waiting list to avoid a daily effort to secure a reservation. Ziegler said he believed that change would address the loudest concerns.
“What I’ve heard from citizens is, ‘Look, I’m fine being No. 74,132 as long as I know I have a place in line,’” Ziegler said. “Right now, they just feel like they go on that site, and when they hit it, it’s sold out.”
Henry said he expected the new system to be functional by next week and would accommodate individuals without computers.
On Monday, the local health department reported it had depleted its supplies and was not getting additional supplies. Later that day, the Florida Department of Health announced it was sending 1,000 vaccines.
Florida Department of Health spokesperson Jason Mahon said the communication error arose because the state revised a preliminary distribution plan.
“We’re not worried about miscommunication over the course of a couple of days as much as we are about getting it right,” he said.
Health department officials were hopeful vaccine supplies would be more plentiful in coming weeks.
Although county leaders noted they play a limited role in the state- and federal-led effort, Henry credited local officials with making themselves available to help however they could.
“We’re collectively trying to do everything we can,” Henry said.