Growth In Variant Strains A Concern For County Officials

While local health officials work alongside county, state and federal organizations to get Palm Beach County residents vaccinated with one of the three FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine options, looming concerns cloud the forecast.

As state and federal agencies continue to adjust their vaccine requirements, Florida Department of Health-Palm Beach County Director Dr. Alina Alonso was back before the Palm Beach County Commission on Tuesday, March 23 for an update that included warnings against dropping your guard, even after being vaccinated.

“I want to talk about the COVID-19 variant report. This is very concerning,” said Alonso, as she shared a frequently updated map from the CDC. “When we came last time, we were in the 600s, even with Michigan. We are now at 1,070 [variant] cases in Florida. The total variants [in the U.S.] are 6,638, so about one-sixth of the total variants belong to our state.”

To break the numbers down further, most of the variant cases are in Broward County.

“This is very serious, because if the variant becomes the predominant virus, that means it spreads much easier. It’s not more lethal, but it does spread quicker,” Alonso said. “Instead of getting one or two people sick with the virus now, this will get four or five people sick at one time.”

Alonso believes the fact that Florida is hub for international travel is partly to blame for the spike in variants. She also discussed the spring break crowds and problems going on further south, particularly in Miami-Dade County.

“I’ve lived here all my life. I’ve gone to spring break, so I know what it is like. But this was something nobody’s ever seen before. They had to shut down and put in a curfew,” she said. “So, I encourage all our businesses, all our population, to realize we are not out of the woods yet. We have got to wear our masks, we have got to watch our distance and we have to enforce this. You have to hold yourself back.”

Alonso also explained that variants are only tested when suspected outbreaks occur. The process includes three steps: the department of health asks for local approval to recognize the suspicion of variant cases, then that information goes to the state for approval and eventually to the CDC for actual testing.

“We know for a fact there are a lot more variants than what we have tested because not every positive case gets tested for this,” Alonso said. “The fear is [the variant] will become the predominant virus. It has in Europe.”

Because Alonso’s department has aggressively requested more vaccines from the state’s supply, the county continues moving through Phase 2 for vaccination goals.

“The governor’s new executive order has dropped it down to 50 years of age,” Alonso said. “People are not having to re-enter their information on to the waiting list. Right now, state vaccine — that’s us here in Palm Beach County — we have to follow the governor’s executive order. Now, CVS and Publix are using federal vaccines and are following federal guidelines. That’s very confusing to folks.”

Alonso did mention that some sites in Miami-Dade and Broward are dropping the age to 40 years, which is going by the federal guidelines. “Please don’t ask why in Palm Beach County are we following a different number than Miami,” she said. “Federal sites welcome you, and you can go down there if you’d like.”

Department of Emergency Management Director Mary Blakeney broke down the county numbers.

“As you can see, we have not met six of the indicators this week,” she said. “The overall positivity rate has been steadily increasing since its low. Our daily lab positivity rate has averaged 5.66 percent, which is above our 5 percent target.”

The overall positivity rate of COVID-19 tests continues to rise, sitting at 16.09 percent. The death rate has remained steady around 2 percent, in line with the rest of the state. This is about two deaths per day in Palm Beach County.

“We have tested more than 797,000 people. Residents continue to have access to over 115 testing sites, and PBCFR continues to do home-bound testing,” Blakeney said. “Our previous matrix showed two red areas, this week we are at six. But on a positive note, our daily hospitalizations have decreased. We are continuing to encourage people to get vaccinated, and we have vaccinated more than 378,000 people in Palm Beach County.”

Commissioner Melissa McKinlay expressed her additional concerns about the need to expedite vaccinating farm workers.

“Are we any closer to getting a mobile unit up and running?” McKinlay asked. “Fresno County, California, [brought] a mobile unit to a packing house and vaccinated 1,100 workers. So, if those federal authorizations are there, I’ve got 2,700 H2A visa workers that are getting ready to leave in the end of April. If we don’t vaccinate them now, we are sending a problem to another state that may not be as well-equipped to handle it. If they get one shot in the arm, and then they are gone 21 days later, we’ve done a huge disservice. Something has to be done to help those seasonal farm workers now.”

McKinlay also requested at the upcoming April 6 update for a more detailed explanation of vaccination numbers, since some areas show discrepancies. Alonso explained that the numbers use 2019 population data.

Alonso also addressed questions on contact tracing.

“We’ve been doing [contact tracing] since day one. Contact tracing of any outbreak is important and very effective. As the number of viruses go up, it is less effective, but we have continued to do it,” Alonso said. “It’s not as effective as when we get at or below a daily positivity rate of 5 percent. The bigger the ship, the harder it is to turn.”

She followed up that 21 states are reporting an increase in cases, which is not a good sign. “We are not out of the woods, and a lot of people are predicting a fourth wave,” Alonso said.

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