Amid variant COVID-19 strains and questions over vaccines and accessibility, Palm Beach County continues to see a rise in the number of positive cases, but a reduction in deaths resulting from contracting the virus.
Even with a nationwide pause on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, there is no longer a shortage of vaccine supply, but instead a worrisome lack of residents showing up for their scheduled appointments.
Dr. Alina Alonso, director of the Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County, said that some of those vaccine appointments are being canceled due to residents obtaining shots from the private sector, such as pharmacies.
“We are now definitely entrenched in Phase 3, finally,” Alonso said. “The vaccine is widely available at this time. There are less people coming because the public has access from other sites, and that is something we want to happen — that is a good thing. However, we still have hard tasks in front of us, such as how to stop the increase in cases and how to get more minorities and other hesitant individuals vaccinated to be able to reach herd immunity.”
Palm Beach County leads Florida’s metro areas with 80 percent of its population over age 65 being vaccinated. This directly relates to the drops in deaths, since that is the demographic at the highest risk for life-threatening virus cases. Unfortunately, the number of positive cases overall continues to rise.
Alonso explained that the initial tools in the fight against COVID-19 were testing, contact tracing and masks. “Now we have a vaccine, so we have a second tool,” she said. “I will also say we have a third tool, because now we have something that can treat the virus, which is the antibody monoclonal therapy. But it’s not widely utilized or widely known, so this is something that we have to get out.”
This therapy can help those suffering from COVID-19 avoid hospitalization and recover faster, but it is underutilized. The main issue, though, remains getting to those spreading the virus.
“We are now showing that ages 15 to 44 represent 51 percent of the new cases. Only eight percent of the new cases are in [the 65 to 85] group. That explains the reason we have increased cases, but decreased deaths. That’s a national trend. It is important to get the message to the 15- to 44-year-olds that stopping COVID-19 is in their hands,” Alonso said. “We’ve taken care of the people most likely to die. Now we’ve got to take care of the ones who are spreading the disease.”
Research is showing more long-term effects from the virus, and these conditions are often more debilitating than the infectious period itself. These include migraines, neurological issues and different organs being affected.
Health Care District CEO Darcy Davis followed up by explaining how resources will shift to other vaccine distribution methods, including three mobile units. One reason for this is the unfilled and missed vaccine appointments, including approximately 10,000 unfilled appointments as of April 19.
“The supply for Pfizer and Moderna is significantly outpacing the administration of the vaccine,” Davis said. “We expected that as the eligibility expanded, that we would see a proportionate increase in demand, and that did not happen. We also have a rising trend in terms of no-shows and cancellations. We used to see 10 to 12 percent. Now we are seeing 25 to 30 percent.”
All committed appointments will be filled, and all second doses needed will be filled without issue. The three mobile units going into effect soon can each administer 500 doses per day each.
“We can go into communities. We don’t need appointments — it can be walk up. We are trying a smaller, more targeted approach to get to those who we know have trust in a faith leader or their medical team,” Davis said.
Since the next step is to target those who are hesitant to get vaccinated, board members had a few comments and ideas.
“Only 60 percent of your healthcare employees are vaccinated?” Vice Mayor Robert Weinroth asked Davis. “That is troubling, not specifically with respect to your population of educated employees, but that it points to a problem we need to be focusing on. If only 60 percent of your population has deemed it appropriate to get vaccinated, then we need to do a better job of explaining why our population needs to be embracing this.”
He followed that more money should be invested in PSAs to address the issue. Weinroth also suggested the focus on positivity rates be reconsidered, since many individuals are not getting tested unless required to do so.
Mayor David Kerner said that what happens next will impact the county for years.
“We are in a classic American dynamic, which is oversupply of vaccines with the infrastructure to distribute it, and a lack of willingness in certain demographics to embrace what is really a scientific miracle,” Kerner said. “A lot of people in this world would pay everything they have to be in the position that we are in, to have such robust access. We, as a government, have an obligation to help inform the public.”
Kerner said that decisions such as mask mailings made a huge difference in Palm Beach County’s ability to remain open.
“Many Americans, if you give it to them, they’ll use it,” he said, suggesting the upcoming South Florida Fair as great opportunity for offering vaccinations. “The fair is one of the most diverse cultural events in the county.”
Kerner mirrored Weinroth’s comments about PSAs and suggested they utilize newer social media formats, such as TikTok. He then suggested incentives to engage millennials, who he feels are not as focused on the pandemic as other generations.
“We are getting into micro issues of how do we land this airplane? If we can get more vaccinated, that is going to pay dividends for the rest of Palm Beach County,” he said.
Commissioner Melissa McKinlay suggested the hours of operation might contribute to the lower number of young people being vaccinated, since they are likely working. Alonso responded that the low vaccine turnout continues into the evening and said utilizing mobile units should help them adjust to communities who request their vaccines.
“We are also hearing from young women who are hesitant about getting the vaccine because of rumors regarding infertility,” McKinley said. “Where can they go for information?”
Alonso thanked McKinley for bringing it up.
“That is one of those myths that has occurred on the internet. There is absolutely no evidence of any infertility due to the vaccine,” Alonso said. “It’s going to take a lot of education and talking to people one-on-one about those issues spread falsely. The problem with trying to dismiss a myth is there is no proof because it doesn’t exist. There are still people who think there are chips in the vaccine.”
In regard to needing a booster shot in the future, Alonso said that research on that continues, and while it is certain the vaccine lasts at least six months, it could last for years. But she stressed sticking to the basics.
“Wearing masks stops the spread of the virus, including the variants. We know that. We had a very low flu season, so if anybody wants to argue about masks, we have plenty of examples to show that the mask works, and it’s something we need to keep in place,” Alonso said.