Virus Cases Are Down, But More Vaccinations Are Needed

Face masks are on the minds of just about everyone after recent recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) that suggested individuals who are fully vaccinated can go without masks inside buildings. This led to a Palm Beach County policy change.

As of this week, all fully vaccinated individuals are not required to wear a mask inside Palm Beach County buildings. “Fully vaccinated” means that the person has received both doses of Pfizer or Moderna, or the single shot of Johnson & Johnson, plus a 14-day incubation period after the last shot.

The CDC recommends those who are not fully vaccinated continue to wear masks indoors and in large crowds. Masks continue to be required on all mass public transportation.

Florida Department of Health-Palm Beach County Director Dr. Alina Alonso was pleased to share a downward trend in both new COVID-19 cases and deaths.

“We’ve got lots of good news,” she said. “We are very close to coming to an end. The vaccines are definitely continuing to go up, although they are at a slower pace, they are still getting into arms. Here in Palm Beach County, we are continuing to vaccinate.”

Florida is still in the high range for community transmission, while the country as a whole is slowly coming down. Palm Beach County is now considered “substantial” for community transmission, while other urban counties, such as Broward and Miami-Dade, remain “high.”

Alonso remains concerned about new cases in children ages 5 to 14 years old, which has increased from 10 to 15 percent of all new cases in the county.

“That’s disturbing because this is the group that is going to be the hardest to vaccinate. This is where we need to concentrate our efforts, especially for these children who will not be able to get vaccinated,” Alonso said.

While the Pfizer vaccine is now approved for ages 12 and up, younger children are still not able to be vaccinated.

“No one wants to have the long-term consequences from COVID-19, especially for younger children,” she said.

When looking at the population under age 65, only 36 percent are currently vaccinated. Herd immunity requires anywhere from 70 to 80 percent vaccination.

“We still have to vaccinate a lot of people to get anywhere near herd immunity, so that this can be over — and we need this to be over,” Alonso said. “My concerns are the confusion that has occurred because of the statements regarding vaccinated individuals not needing to wear masks outdoors or indoors, unless in crowded circumstances. Unfortunately, the only thing that people hear is that vaccinated people don’t have to wear a mask.”

Alonso feels strongly that individuals should still carry their masks with them, as there is still a risk when passing through areas like crowded restaurants or large events, even outdoors.

The purpose of allowing vaccinated individuals to go without masks was intended as an incentive for people to get vaccinated, she said.

For individuals not vaccinated, masks are still recommended. “Why? Because we have a ton of variants that are very contagious,” Alonso said. “We know in areas where circulation is not very good, the virus can get aerosolized, and so we can inhale it very easily. I have employees at work who are very concerned about coming back to work because people may not be masked around them.”

Alonso is also worried about spikes in cases following the upcoming Memorial Day and Fourth of July holidays. She strongly recommends that people still wear their masks, noting that many people have immunocompromised family members who cannot be vaccinated, and masks will help protect them.

“I hope that the majority of people will continue to do the right thing. Just because things are looking good, doesn’t mean we want to go backward. This can go up at any moment if we let our guard down,” Alonso said.

When asked if county employees are required to wear masks, County Administrator Verdenia Baker referred back to her e-mail from the previous day.

“We are following the CDC guidelines, but we don’t know who is vaccinated and who is not, and we have to take responsibility. For individuals who are not, they should still be wearing masks,” said Baker, who admitted there is no way of knowing who is vaccinated and who is not. “The CDC put us in a difficult situation, and at this point, we have to depend on each other through personal responsibility. I don’t believe, personally, that’s how public health should be handled.”

Baker also noted that the Palm Beach County Tax Collector’s Office will still require masks, the Clerk & Comptroller’s Office will follow CDC guidelines and the Property Appraiser’s Office had not announced a decision as of Tuesday.

Emergency Management Director Mary Blakeney followed up with information on the upcoming transitions from permanent to mobile and private sites for both testing and vaccines.

“Just as we have started to transition from our mass operations at our vaccination sites, the state is doing a similar transition for testing sites. All state-led and state-supported testing locations will be closing at the end of this week,” Blakeney said. “As we transition away from our mass vaccination sites by the end of the month, we have shifted our focus to the rollout of our mobile vaccination strategy.”

The Palm Beach County Health Care District will target children ages 12 and up, as well as areas where vaccine participation is low. Bringing mobile vaccine units to entertainment venues, such as the South Florida Fair, will also continue.

Baker also spoke about working with businesses to incentivize the public and their employees to get vaccinated. One major issue remains getting people to show up for the vaccines, which are now readily available.

Testing will still be available and free at pharmacies and any site where vaccines are given. The Department of Health will continue testing and vaccination at their clinics, including the location in Belle Glade.