Pinellas focusing on COVID-19 vaccinations; state of emergency extended

Dr. Ulyee Choe updates Pinellas County commissioners Feb. 23 with the latest information about the COVID-19 situation.

LARGO — On March 11, Pinellas County will mark one year since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the county. The first death was reported on March 23.

Since that time, as of Feb. 27, Florida Department of Health has reported 66,571 cumulative cases and 1,441 deaths in Pinellas.

To try to reduce community spread of COVID-19, County commissioners enacted a local state of emergency on March 13, 2020, which they voted to continue through March 5 at their Feb. 23 meeting. It will likely be extended every seven days for the foreseeable future.

An ordinance passed June 23, 2020 also remains in effect that requires the public to wear facial coverings in indoor public places and to use social distancing. Employees at restaurants and bars that prepare and/or serve food and drink indoors and outdoors are required to wear facial coverings.

Some of the more vocal opponents of the ordinance have asked what criteria the county would use to rescind the order to wear face masks. They again asked for the criteria on Feb. 23.

A group of doctors and other medical experts have submitted recommendations, which are available at https://covid19.pinellascounty.org/consensus-statement.

The advice includes continuing the mask mandate until there are no more than 30 new cases a day in Pinellas and a test positivity rate of 3% or less on a rolling seven-day average for four consecutive weeks.

Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the DOH in Pinellas reported Feb. 23 that the rolling seven-day average for positive tests in Pinellas was 6.3%.

Commissioner Janet Long said “it is wise to continue on a path” where people wear masks and are cautious. She said the upcoming spring break season means that lots of tourists would be coming to the county.

She said now is not the time to “throw caution to the wind” and lift the state of emergency or the mask mandate.

County Administrator Barry Burton agreed, saying that COVID-19 continues to be a serious threat to the community. He agreed that the numbers were “creeping down” but not yet decreasing in any significant way.

Vaccination efforts

The focus has moved to vaccinations. Ulyee told commissioners that as of Feb. 23, 132,729 residents had received at least one dose of vaccine, representing 13.4% of the population. In addition, 98,982 of the county’s 250,000 seniors ages 65 and older have received at least one dose, or 42%.

Ulyee talked about the pending approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was being considered for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. He said approval of another vaccine would provide a boost to the supply. In addition, it is a single-dose vaccine instead of requiring two shots like the Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna vaccines.

The FDA issued an order for emergency use of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine on Feb. 27.

Choe urged those currently eligible, ages 65 and older, health care workers and the medically vulnerable, to continue to register for a vaccine at the DOH facility, www.PatientPortalFL.com, as well as at Publix, Sam’s Clubs and Walmart pharmacies.

Friends and family are encouraged to assist those without internet access or with technology issues to sign up for appointments. Online is the best way to register, but you can also sign up for a shot from a county vaccination site by calling 844-770-8548.

As more vaccine becomes available, those who have registered will be contacted by text message or email to schedule an appointment for a first and second dose. Those who do not have a mobile number or email address can ask a friend or family member to sign up on their behalf. Currently, there is not a way to use a land line as a contact.

More than 100,000 people over age 65 have registered and will receive an invitation to make an appointment on a first-come, first-served basis. County officials say it could take weeks or months before new or recent sign-ups are contacted depending on available supplies of the vaccine.

About 20,000 people a week are receiving first and second doses in Pinellas through the DOH.

The county also reports that Pinellas is leading the state for vaccinations at long-term care facilities.

Choe reported that the county is reaching out to volunteer groups, including Healthy St. Petersburg and Faith in Action Through Strength Together to get help to those who are not as tech savvy so they can register for a vaccine.

DOH also is offering vaccination events at local churches and in predominantly African American faith communities where access is difficult. Choe said DOH is continuing to work with community leaders to correct inequities to access for Blacks and Hispanics.

Gov. Ron DeSantis recently announced he would be expanding eligibility to younger ages sometime in March. DeSantis issued a new executive order on Monday that expands eligibility to K-12 school teachers age 50 and older, sworn law enforcement officers age 50 and older and fire fighters age 50 and older.

In addition, the order allowed advanced practice registered nurses and licensed pharmacists to vaccinate persons determined by their physician to be extremely vulnerable to COVID-19.

Burton expressed concern about adding more when Pinellas is still struggling to vaccinate the first group.

“There’s not a single place to go (to get the vaccine),” he said, adding that the roll outs are done by the state without coordinating with the counties.

Commission Chair Dave Eggers asked whether Pinellas was getting its fair share of the vaccine supply. Choe said he wasn’t tracking that number, but was instead concentrating on getting as much of Pinellas’ population vaccinated as possible.

Burton said the volume of supply dictated everything. He said if more supply becomes available it could cause problems with having enough staff (volunteer paramedics) to continue working overtime to administer the vaccine.

He said the county needed to be able to depend on pharmacies and others for distribution.

“The county can’t continue to be the main distribution,” he said. “It is a huge scheduling issue.”

He also said plans are in the works to weatherproof vaccination sites so people won’t have to stand in line outside in the rain or hot sun.

Eggers said the county needed to find a way to increase its numbers of those vaccinated.

“It’s simply a supply issue,” Burton said, adding that staff was working on ways to do more.

For more information on local vaccine distribution and availability updates, visit https://covid19.pinellascounty.org/vaccines/.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.