The local state of emergency ordered for COVID-19 in Pinellas County has been extended by the Board of County Commissioners until March 5th. Additionally the board cited deep concerns about reaching approximately 60,000 under-served residents who may not have the ability to register for vaccines.
“We are fast approaching some anniversaries regarding the pandemic. Next week will be the anniversary of the first case in the state of Florida, and the following week marks the first case in Pinellas County. We have reached a year of battling and enduring this pandemic.” Dr. Ulyee Choe, Director, Florida Department of Health, opened his remarks to the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners.
He stated that almost 100,000 residents have been vaccinated (40 percent of that targeted age group). The county has seen a seven-day decline with a current case count of 218 hospitalized with COVID-19, 43 are in ICU and 20 are on ventilators. Dr. Choe said that hospital beds and ICU availability is stable. Positivity rate is at 6.3 percent overall for lasts two months.
Dr. Choe said, “In terms of the vaccines, a lot of great work has been done over the last few weeks. 132,729 have received one dose or completed the series which translates to 13.4 percent of the population. Close to 100,000 of the over-65 priority group have been vaccinated.”
He expressed more hope has the Johnson and Johnson vaccine is expected to be reviewed by the FDA on Feb 26th. “If it cuts the mustard it will be approved by this weekend. Another vaccine will help out with the vaccine supplies.”
Dr. Choe explained that approximately 20,400 individuals age 65+ are currently being vaccinated per week (at Largo site) with the first dose and some (about half) for the second dose.
He and others on the BOCC stated concerns and need for more access points. Publix(42 site), Walmart (four sites) and Sam’s Club (two sites) have added locations as well as other county and state centers or “pods.” The supply issue due to the storms in the North did not impact this area.
Dr. Choe said the local “Fire and EMS services are doing an amazing job and I can’t say enough about all the great work this community partner is doing and also the county staff, Emergency Management and the Department of Health staff are all doing a really great job.” He said several times that there is tremendous work being done to get vaccines distributed.
There is a “federal” site opening in Tampa in early March. “The focus to my understanding is going to be those who score high enough on the socially vulnerable index (created by the CDC) will be targeted by zip codes in several counties.” Dr. Choe said that it is apparently a FEMA site working in combination with federal and state authorities but the exact organizational structure is not yet fully known. This federal site and others will be used to vaccinate 50 plus year olds, essential workers and first responders.
Dr. Choe said that it is unlikely Pinellas will be in the first phase as the socially vulnerable “threshold” takes priority. Dr. Choe told commissioners he will continually update them on this site to further clarify services. He also said there is “no known formula, I’m aware of at this point, to determine the demographics of the zip codes.”
Dr. Choe further explained, “The numbers of available vaccines are so dynamic and determined at the federal and state levels, its is very hard to know the exact numbers available.” He told the BOCC that more information will be provided as soon as possible. Dr. Choe said that the county should expect an increase of 4,000 doses next week but again determining the actual number is fluid.
Dr. Choe urged health care workers to be vaccinated as well as the health-care centers to open as many access points as possible. The problem of reaching those 65+ with only landlines or and/or no computers is presenting a challenge the board members cited along with public comments urging “out of the box thinking.”
The scheduling system, by CDR McGuire, has been improved and continues to be refined. Those with technological issues, Dr. Choe urged residents to help their neighbors by reaching out to help them register. “We talk and continue to refine the system. We ask that everyone reach out to help residents register.” Note that it is not necessary to be in the state in order to help current residents register.
In the near future, The Foundation for A Healthy St. Pete, through its Health Equity Initiative, will be putting out street teams with IPads to hopefully register individuals in various systems. Dr. Choe noted that it can be very difficult as more and more of these registration processes open in various locations, all online. Local libraries and other organizations have also been notified to help residents with questions and needs and provide computer access.
According to Lourdes Benedict, Assistant County Administrator, residents need a mobile phone. It was noted that only texts and emails are sent out regarding vaccines and scheduling. Benedict reiterated that residents need a mobile phone or email to receive notifications.
“A landline is not going to get it for them. It’s just not, “ she said. “Unfortunately this is an age group that is likely not to have this technology.” Benedict also noted, “You do not need to be in the same state to help individuals register here. This is something we continue to work on.”
It is recommended for residents to call first, speak with representatives and provide the best number to communicate with them to bring them in for an appointment. Libraries, churches, synagogues and the like are also being asked to reach out as well as online groups in Facebook and other platforms. Benedict said the list of those with only landlines “is not as high as a number as once thought,” she added.
Commissioner Rene Flowers shared that the federal government has a “free phone system” for seniors. She explained that the cell phones are limited on minutes, “but it at least affords them the opportunity to have a mechanism to receive a text message.” It was suggested the the registering-system company be advised of this and similar options to offer when residents call with questions.
Dr. Choe finished his update explaining the the Johnson and Johnson vaccine is a one-dose vaccine but that trials are still underway examining one- or two-dose effectiveness rates. It was reiterated that the priority group in Pinellas County remains the 65 and older group.
As mentioned by Governor DeSantis, some federal sites may open to a wider range of demographics (50+ age of essential workers) but Pinellas County remains in this phase for now of only the elderly and most vulnerable. Dr. Choe said he expects the county to move into this next phase in a few weeks.
“Reaching the 250,000 residents that are 65 years and older in our county has been a challenge as well as trying to navigate these different systems. From a capacity standpoint, we really need to move forward carefully and be certain all of the distribution channels… ramp up as the vaccine availability increases. We need to be sure we reach the entire county population before moving into this next phase and adding another group in that will again confuse the system,” urged Commissioner Burton.
“I absolutely I apologize to the public but there isn’t one single place to go. There just isn’t. The way I see it, there isn’t going to be. These state channels, these contracts, are approved by the state. They roll them out by the state and they are not in coordination necessarily with us. There is some allowance where we can distribute vaccines over to a Publix, but they also receive direct distribution. The combination makes it very confusing,” Commissioner Burton explained.
When asked if Dr. Choe has concerns about Pinellas getting the appropriate number of vaccines, i.e., “getting its fair share,” he responded by explaining he doesn’t look at the ranking of Pinellas but rather comparing how many have been vaccinated compared to other counties.
Dr. Choe sited that there is a little room for improvement within the 65+ age group. However he noted that Pinellas does have a large 65+ community. He pointed out that, “In one week the percentage of those vaccinated went from 32 to 40 percent. With the launch of our larger site, we are actually making nice ground on that.”
“The other number that I am watching per population is just how vaccines are working. You need to get 50 to 70 percent or more vaccinated of the general population, which is something that I’m watching and why I quote the 13.4 percent number we are currently at.
“In terms of that, looking at the seven largest counties Pinellas is number two of the general population that’s been vaccinated thus far. It’s a nice start but we have a little ways to go, but we are at least in line in terms of that metric.”
There is a “policy guidance document” on masks-usage guidelines provided by the Geiger Group to Tampa Bay counties which can be used to lower recommendations in the future. Commissioner Barry Burton said the report is available on the Pinellas BOCC website for future use and determining guidelines ( located online under COVID – advice to Tampa Bay Counties with a link).
In Pinellas, positivity rates of 30 new cases per population of one million per day (over four consecutive weeks), a three percent positivity rate, and vaccinated percentages determine changes.
“We are asking people to be safe just a little while longer. The reality is we still have serious numbers that are creeping down but it’s not gone by any means,” Commissioner Eggers said. “Ever measure you can take is essential,” he added.