COVID-19 vaccinations to be available to those age 50 and up on March 22

Syringes filled with COVID-19 vaccine are ready to be administered at a Pinellas County Department of Health vaccination site. As of March 17, more than 220,000 county residents had received at least one dose of the vaccine. Starting March 22, residents ages 50 and up will be eligible to receive the vaccine along with long-term care facility and staff and health care personnel with direct patient contact. Those with vulnerable conditions need a form completed by their doctor.

More than 220,000 Pinellas County residents have received at least a first-dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of March 17. Officials say about 75% were seniors ages 65 and up.

All in all, close to 20 percent of the county’s population has had at least one dose and more than half of seniors.

For the first time since vaccinations became available in mid-December, there was no shortage of appointments for those wanting to get a shot through the county’s three Department of Health distribution centers last week.

As of Monday, March 15, a new group was eligible to get a vaccine — ages 60-64. The list of those eligible now includes ages 60 and up, persons under age 65 who are deemed medically vulnerable by a physician, K-12 school employees age 50 and up, sworn law enforcement officers age 50 and up, firefighters age 50 and up, as well as long-term care facility residents and staff and health professionals with contact with patients.

Eligible Pinellas County residents are encouraged to register for an appointment at www.PatientPortalFL.com or call 844-770-8548.

Residents no longer have to wait for an email or text invitation. They can check for available appointments at any time. Appointments are available for a two-week window.

Gov. Ron DeSantis released a new executive order March 19 that adds all persons ages 50 and older to the list of those eligible to get a vaccination starting on Monday, March 22.

During the Pinellas County Commission’s March 9 meeting, Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Department of Health in Pinellas, reported that there had been some “softening of demand” for the vaccine. He projected that demand would go back up due to the change in eligibility to allow those age 60-64 to get vaccinated now.

He said local pharmacies were continuing to give out vaccinations, including CVS, which started last week.

County staff is still working to find ways to get the vaccine to residents with mobility, transportation or others barriers, especially people of color.

County Administrator Barry Burton said people still want to get vaccinated, they just haven’t figured out how. He said having so many places available made it confusing for some. He said staff was still working to communicate information on where to get a shot and when.

Gov. Ron DeSantis recently said that he would be lowering the age threshold to make more eligible for the shots as fast as possible. President Joe Biden has promised that all Americans will be eligible to get a shot by May 1.

For the latest information on vaccinations in Pinellas, visit https://covid19.pinellascounty.org/vaccines/.

Local state of emergency extended

In other business, the commission voted unanimously to extend the local state of emergency through March 19. Burton has since extended the emergency order through March 26 and is expected to extend it again for the weeks of April 2 and 9. A regular commission isn’t scheduled again until April 13.

Several members of the public requested that the ordinance that mandate wearing a face mask in indoor places be repealed. Commission Kathleen Peters asked it staff could present data on what other counties had done to combat the spread of COVID-19 and the results.

She said it had been nine months since the ordinance had been enacted. She said the vaccine had now been administered to many of the most vulnerable. She also talked about the public’s fatigue and frustration with the restrictions.

Commissioner Janet Long said she would be happy to look at the data, but again expressed her concern about the possibility of an increase in cases due to the young people coming to the area for spring break. She said she wouldn’t want to make any changes until after spring break is past.

“Young people think they’re invincible,” she said.

Commissioner Pat Gerard also agreed to take a look at the data but asked that it include population densities. She said it did no good to compare a county such as Pinellas against a rural county in South Dakota.

“Heaven knows we’re all tired of this whole thing,” she said. “I’m just doing the best I know how to keep my constituents and family safe.”

Commission Chair Dave Eggers said the commission needed to be able to talk about the situation without the pressure of being expected to make a decision. He said people were tired and the new guidelines coming out from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were sending mixed messages.

“We’re not talking about making a decision yet, just having a dialogue” he said.

Commissioners agreed to talk about the matter at the April 13 meeting.

Peters reminded the public that the local state of emergency was not the same as the ordinance mandating that face masks be worn. She said the vote taken on the emergency order had nothing to do with the ordinance.

Commissioner Charlie Justice said Gov. Ron DeSantis had just extended the state’s emergency order another 60 days.

Commissioner Karen Seel pointed out that the commission had asked its medical community to make recommendations about the best time to make changes. She said Pinellas was not close to coming to a place where there were no more than 30 new cases a day or the recommended positivity rate.

She said she had faith in the science and would like to see a further reduction in the number of cases.

“I just want people to stay healthy and be safe,” she said. “I understand it is an inconvenience.”

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