Alachua County ranks third in state for COVID-19 vaccine rate

The Alachua County Health Department reports that more than 27,000 residents have received a dose of COVID-19 vaccine and that more than 7,500 have received both doses.

That makes the county the third-most vaccinated area in the state, based on population percentage, according to Paul Myers, administrator for the Florida Department of Health in Alachua County. Myers, speaking at a town hall Monday night, said Alachua has focused on vaccinating health care workers and the population over 65 years old to achieve its numbers. 

Those vaccinations have helped drive down the area’s positivity rate, number of daily cases, and hospitalizations, according to Dr. David Nelson, president of UF Health.

During the hour-long town hall call-in event hosted by Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe and Alachua County Commission Chair Ken Cornell, Nelson, Myers, North Florida Regional Medical CEO Eric Lawson and North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System Director Tom Wisnieski delivered updates on vaccine status.

According to the FDOH website, “Demand for the COVID-19 vaccine is far in excess of the supply the state has received so far. It is anticipated that additional supplies will be coming soon.”

This was noted by all of the local hospital and FDOH representatives as was the amount of collaboration among them to administer the doses.

From local churches hosting clinics, home visits to non-mobile citizens by Gainesville Fire Rescue and Alachua County Fire, and door-to-door education efforts in parts of the county, Myers said that the area is “making great progress” in getting the word out and the vaccine into arms.

Myers reported that health care workers and the over-65 population remain a priority as the county follows Gov. Ron DeSantis’ orders on vaccine priorities.

Nelson recommended that anyone who is under 65, not a health care worker, and who has had COVID-19 to wait three to six months before seeking a vaccine appointment, because they have antibodies still in their systems to fight the virus.

Myers said that the county has relied on its Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), the same group of medical professionals who step in during storm emergencies to help out. The MRC is a national volunteer program established after 9/11 by the U.S. surgeon general that is dedicated to the pre-identification, advance preparation, and credentialing of local health professionals to respond in large-scale medical or public health emergencies.

“Right now many are assisting,” Myers said, adding that practicing or retired health care professionals interested in joining the local MRC can call 352-334-7900 to learn more and start the vetting process.

Myers put the vaccine rollout into perspective saying that along with his department, “thanks to NFRMC, UF Health and the VA it took nine months to confirm 15,000 cases (of COVID-19) and it took 21 days to vaccinate 15,000 people.”

NFRMC’s Lawson said his hospital has vaccinated 3,000 health care workers and exhausted its first batch of the vaccine.

Tom Wisnieski said the VA has vaccinated as many people as possible within all 14 sites of care across Florida and Georgia.

The majority of the 14,370 doses administered to veterans have been at the Gainesville and Lake City hospitals, he said, adding that 12,592 first doses have been given and 1,778 veterans have received both doses.

Now it’s a wait for the next batch to arrive. “We have administered all of our first supply, waiting for the next allocation,” Wisnieski said but that next delivery will be less than the initial batches as the amounts to be delivered have been reduced to 1,300.

But veterans with scheduled appointments should keep them, Wisnieski said. He added that teams will contact eligible veterans as doses become available.

UF Health’s Nelson said now that health care workers who work closely with patients have been vaccinated, residents over 65 are UF Health’s priority. The UF Health Springhill testing location is now a drive-thru vaccination facility.

Nelson pointed to the hope that Johnson & Johnson will receive a one-shot vaccine clearance soon.

“With the late entry of J & J we will be dealing with Pfizer and Moderna for a while,” Nelson said. “We are seeing declines in hospitalization, but be patient please and be civil. It’s going to be a long spring.”

Myers added that even for those who have gotten the vaccine, he recommends maintaining mitigation efforts by social distancing, washing hands and wearing face masks.

Myers said the vaccine offers up to 95 percent protection. “It will protect you from becoming ill,” he said. “What we don’t know, because the clinical trial data is so young, is does it prevent infection?”

Myers said it may be possible for a person who has been vaccinated to not be ill, but still be contagious.

“We have to continue to protect each other,” he said.

Myers urged listeners to the town hall to seek out the vaccine from the FDOH, UF Health, NFRMC or the VA system: “We don’t care where you get the vaccine from. Get the vaccine as soon as you can, from wherever you can, especially if you are at high risk.”

For more information about the vaccine, contact the VA Health system online or at 352-548-6000, or contact the Alachua County FDOH at online or at 352-334-7900.

Patients of NFRMC and UF Health should reach out to their primary physician to ask about a vaccine appointment.

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