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COVID in Florida: ‘We have a small window’ to get virus under control

South Florida Sun Sentinel - 4/22/2021

Demand for COVID vaccinations is slipping in Florida, just as public health officials are noticing a worrisome trend: hospitalizations and case numbers are ticking up while a variant is spreading rapidly.

The concern: Florida is missing its window to shut down the virus.

“We need to up the vaccination rate quickly,” said Dr. Edwin Michael, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida. “That’s the only way out. We need to do it fast before a mutation arises that will have consequences. We have a small window before that can occur.”

Softening demand for vaccinations in Florida is leaving vials unused at vaccination sites while less than half of all eligible Floridians have had one dose. Even though every American adult is now eligible for the shots, health experts estimate that the U. S. will reach a tipping point on vaccine enthusiasm in the next two to four weeks.

In Florida, it could be sooner.

On Monday only about 30,000 first doses went into the arms of Floridians, about a third of the doses administered just seven days earlier.

Even with extended hours, Hard Rock Stadium — considered one of Florida’s busiest COVID-19 vaccination sites — is giving out less than a third of the doses allocated each day. Palm Beach County, vaccination centers at the South Florida Fairgrounds, the South County Civic Center in Delray Beach and the Burns Road Community Center in Palm Beach Gardens are operating at 50% capacity this week because no one signed up for 10,000 of the 16,000 slots available. The county will shut these locations and open mobile vaccination sites. Jackson Memorial Hospital, the first site in Miami-Dade to offer COVID vaccines, will stop providing first shots to the public after April 30 because of a drop in demand.

Public health experts are concerned. The drop-off in demand comes as Florida’s indicators are worrisome:

“Hopefully the small spike we are seeing will turn around as we vaccinate more people,” said Dr. Zoran Bursac, a biostatistician with the Stempel College of Public Health at Florida International University. Bursac. “But if we don’t reach enough younger people, COVID will continue to linger. It’s a problem.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Biden administration’s chief medical adviser, predicts that the U.S. can avoid a fourth wave of the coronavirus if there is an increase in vaccinations and if people continue to wear masks and social distance.

But that’s not happening in Florida.

Public health experts say Floridians are changing their behaviors too quickly.

“A lot of people are mixing and that’s contributing to the recent rise in cases and hospitalizations,” said Michael at USF. “We haven’t reduced the numbers as low as I would like and I don’t know if anyone is listening or caring other than public health professionals. The rest of Florida thinks the pandemic is over — but it’s not.”

Michael estimates double the number of Floridians per day need to be vaccinated to reach enough immunity to stop the spread by the end of the year.

To curb spread faster, the next stage of vaccination in Florida requires more door-to-door outreach, employer onsite clinics, free rides to sites and stepped-up education, public health officials say.

Vaccination efforts need to get intense quickly, Michael said. With young adults resisting the vaccine and becoming infected with COVID, he fears a vaccine-resistant variant will emerge, possibly one unique to Florida. “If we are not vigilant we could get into the zone where the pandemic is not going to go away,”

Sun Sentinel health reporter Cindy Goodman can be reached at cgoodman@sunsentinel.com.

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