Experts from the University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute say time is running out.
Alachua County Commissioners say they have no power due to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, his administration, and a state Legislature that handed over home rule when it passed laws blocking mitigation efforts such as face mask mandates.
At Tuesday’s Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting all parties expressed frustration.
Data show a surge is happening in Alachua County, UF Drs. Michael Lauzardo and Marco Salemi both said. Numbers presented to the BOCC by Alachua County Health Department spokesperson Ryan McGuire included 29,182 cumulative cases, a 14.2 percent positivity rate and 285 deaths from COVID-19 in the county since the pandemic started.
In the last week from July 30 to Aug. 5, Alachua County reported 1,418 cases. McGuire noted that the surge started at the end of June and early July and has now surpassed the highest case rates since last winter.
McGuire said he can’t offer more current data than from five days ago because the state rolled back COVID-19 reports to once a week on Fridays.
“These numbers are trending poorly,” McGuire said. “We are surpassing our previous peaks. Tests are coming back more and more as positive.”
Alachua is following national trends, McGuire said: “Most people being hospitalized are not vaccinated.”
A chart from the Florida Hospital Association proves that the state is at a level “much higher than at peak last year,” McGuire said, showing that cases in July 2021 were 134 percent of what they were last year on the same date—and the line is on the rise. The Alachua County COVID-19 dashboard shows some 400 people are hospitalized locally, including about 160 in ICU as of Monday.
Alachua County reports a 61 percent vaccination rate with 147,169 of eligible recipients fully vaccinated—numbers that are also on the rise as vaccinations accelerate—but McGuire said a bigger increase is needed. There are 92,138 eligible Alachua County residents who are currently unvaccinated for COVID-19.
“Will still have a ways to go,” McGuire said. “We need another 20,000 to 30,000 if we want to hit that herd immunity vaccination rate.”
In an effort to do so, the Alachua County Health Department is expanding hours of operation beginning Thursday, Aug. 12, and is taking appointments for testing and vaccinations Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 12 p.m. It is taking walk-ins Monday through Friday from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
For a firsthand view of what is happening at local hospitals and research, Lauzardo, chief of the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute, addressed the BOCC.
“One walk through the ICU and you can see the real impact that this is taking,” he said. “We still have a communication issue to understand concerns about getting the vaccine. Vaccines are the only way out of this.”
Both Lauzardo and Salemi, an expert in the field of molecular evolution of viruses at the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute, said Alachua County will never make it to herd immunity unless more people get the vaccine.
“In the face of the pandemic, we all have to work together,” Lauzardo said. He compared the situation to being close to scoring the game-winning touchdown, but then spiking the ball at the 5-yard line.
Right now, local hospitals are under stress, Lauzardo said: “We are at a state where things are incredibly complicated in medical care. Jacksonville (UF Health) will run out of ICUs in a week.”
The delta variant has become a game-changer that affects young people, according to Dr. Lauzardo.
“Not wearing face masks will cost lives, period,” he said. “Not getting vaccinated will cost lives. The rest of the population is at risk.”
Salemi has been tracking the spread of COVID-19 and its variants.
“This dramatic new surge of coronavirus is not some kind of seasonal surge,” Salemi said. “This is a new phenomenon.”
And the more the coronavirus delta variant saturates the population, more mutations will form, Salemi told the BOCC. He said he believes it is time for more aggressive mitigation efforts.
“I took a vow to become a U.S. citizen who loves personal freedom, a value I [cherish] above anything else,” Salemi said. “But we cannot hope to contain it to be safe unless we adopt measures that each one of us feels is a duty to carry out.”
Other than declaring a state of emergency, which says Alachua County is in a state of general emergency due to the delta variant of COVID-19, the BOCC is preempted by Gov. DeSantis from mandating any mitigation strategies.
“This action does not limit the rights or liberties of individuals or businesses in the County,” the emergency action states. It “allows certain streamlined operations during the pendency of a local declared state of emergency, which allows the County Administration and the Board of County Commissioners flexibility in the utilization of Federal, State and local Funds.”
On Tuesday the BOCC ratified the emergency action and proposed to add a resolution that recommends more businesses implement face mask rules and calls on individuals to get vaccinated and wear face masks.
Commissioner Charles Chestnut expressed his frustration that the BOCC’s hands are tied in making any requirements of residents and businesses that have been proven to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“Common sense is not common right now,” Chestnut said. “People are not listening to medical professionals and scientists. People in this community and across the country. Just a bunch of foolishness.”
As a funeral director, Chestnut said he has buried 30 people who died of COVID-19.
“Why aren’t people listening to the experts?” he asked.
Chestnut asked the county attorney if there was anything that the BOCC could do at this point with policy and questioned whether the governor has the right to block the BOCC and the School Board of Alachua County when they’re trying to act to ensure public health and safety in Alachua County.
Attorney Sylvia Torres explained that general law passed for the whole state does limit counties.
“It’s clear what the governor had in mind,” she said.
As it stands, Torres said that any executive order created by Alachua County would be subject to review by the governor, who could declare it onerous.
The BOCC opted to extend the emergency action, agreed to work with UF to develop a COVID-19 hotline that residents could call with questions about the vaccine or other topics, to update board policies that will allow for remote participation in future meetings, and directed staff to develop a resolution that recommends businesses and residents to follow medical guidelines to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.