FDA’s Pfizer approval kindles local optimism

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine on Monday, boosting local hospital officials’ hopes for an uptick in vaccination rates.

“I am extraordinarily optimistic,” Ed Jimenez, UF Health Shands Hospital CEO, said during a Zoom call with reporters. “We have been very supportive of the importance of the vaccines, so I am optimistic that this approval eliminates the question that it is ‘temporary’ or ‘experimental,’ all the things that have led to the hesitancy. I am very hopeful this puts all that in the rearview mirror.”

As of Monday, UF Shands has 229 COVID-positive patients with 64 adults in the ICU. Of those patients, 14 are children, half of which are in the ICU.

The overall number is down slightly from 236 on Aug. 19, but the ICU numbers for adults remained the same ( and the cases were up from 11 children who tested positive.

“The numbers for us are stable, but that is a good thing and bad thing all at the same time,” Jimenez said. “It’s a good thing, because if the numbers kept growing, it would put on a lot more stressors, but it’s a bad thing because the numbers are still really high and really impactful on the staff. Those 64 patients in the ICU are still a very extraordinary number.”

At North Florida Regional Medical Center, the COVID-positive hospitalizations remain over 200 with no significant increase or decrease, according to hospital spokesperson Lauren Lettelier.

“Across the nation and here in our state, the vast majority of COVID-19 patients who are hospitalized continue to be unvaccinated individuals,” said Dr. Sean Benoit, North Florida’s chief medical officer, in an email statement. “We are hopeful that the FDA’s full approval of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine will be an added positive action that will encourage more people to become vaccinated. We strongly encourage people in our area to get the vaccine and follow the CDC’s recommendations for preventing the spread of the virus.”

Other regional hospitals are at capacity due to COVID-positive patients. Jimenez said that as of Monday morning, Lake City Medical Center has 88 COVID patients and is licensed for only 99 beds, while Putnam County Medical Center in Palatka has 66 COVID patients and also is licensed for only 99 beds.

Last weekend, Lake City Medical had to turn away patients who required oxygen due to being inundated by COVID-positive patients.

“So if I live in Columbia County and break my ankle, I may have to make a drive to Gainesville and not Lake City (for treatment),” Jimenez said.

The resurgent pandemic has also affected schools. After two weeks of in-person instruction, the Alachua County Public Schools COVID-19 dashboard shows 331 student cases, 120 staff cases, and more than 1,400 students and staff in quarantine. The district announced Sunday that it would continue its mask mandate, despite a 48-hour compliance deadline from the state.

“That’s unfortunate what’s going on and something to pay attention to,” Jimenez said. “There’s a segment of school-aged children 12 and under who can’t get the vaccine, so that’s a piece of this. You’ve got some vaccine hesitancy out there, so that’s a piece of this. It’s a fair observation we’re going to bring people together in a variety of ways and these are the risks and ideally these numbers don’t turn into hospitalizations.”

Monoclonal antibodies remain an option for certain people who, immediately after testing positive for COVID, should receive the treatment to help avoid hospitalization. Both UF Health and North Florida Regional provide monoclonal treatment sites.

“Along with taking precautions, we also encourage residents to learn more about monoclonal antibody treatments, which we are now offering through our emergency departments,” Benoit said. “These treatments are available to eligible individuals (who have already tested positive for COVID-19) as an additional solution to prevent major side-effects of the virus. Health experts have agreed that monoclonal antibody treatments are safe and effective in the prevention of major side effects from the virus—which found a 70 percent reduction of patients requiring hospitalization after the infusion.”

The state has announced plans to open three new monoclonal antibody treatment sites on Tuesday, including one at Fellowship Church in High Springs. Each site will be open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and serve more than 300 people daily.

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