Update (8:34 p.m. Thursday): The countywide face mask mandate went into effect at 5 p.m. Thursday. The full order with details and guidelines is available online.
Our original story:
The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) used a Wednesday emergency meeting to order vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals to wear face masks when two or more are indoors in a public space.
The board unanimously passed the rule for those 2 years old and above, and it will remain in place for seven days starting Thursday.
The vote came after local medical experts from North Florida Regional Medical Center and the Alachua County Health Department presented data emphasizing that the COVID-19 delta variant is up to four times more transmissible, cases are on the rise, and hospitalizations of mostly unvaccinated patients are higher than at any time since the pandemic started.
Eric Lawson, CEO of North Florida Regional Medical Center reported there are 223 patients with COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Lawson also said 41 percent of the entire patient population at NFRMC is COVID-19 positive.
Twenty-five percent of the COVID-19 patients are in the ICU and 61 percent of those are on ventilators.
Lawson noted that all surgeries are on hold except "life and limb," and that medical staff is worn out. Seventy percent of the current COVID-19 patient population at NFRMC lives outside of Alachua County, Lawson told the board.
"We have yet to peak," Lawson said, adding that he is worried schools and colleges opening up could drive infections up even more.
Lawson said it's a "difficult time" for health care professionals who are dealing with the increase in patients and care. He likened it to PTSD and said the hospital has brought in more counselors and additional pastoral care and bereavement specialists.
"It's a tragedy," he said.
Epidemiologist Dr. Derek Cummings studies face mask use in communities against COVID-19. He told the BOCC that studies show that mask use indoors reduces COVID-19 transmission.
"We need to consider mask use because transmission reduction is more important in this phase of the outbreak," Cummings said.
He suggested the BOCC consider a policy that increases social distancing and the use of face masks while limiting certain types of gatherings.
"If hospitalizations are high, infection rate is high," Cummings said. "There are more infections than we've ever had in Alachua County. We have seen delta have a quick rise and fall in other communities, but we can't assume cases will go down, so we need to take action with the public health tools that we know reduce spread."
Paul Myers, administrator for the county health department, said the resurgence of the pandemic has been deflating.
"It is disappointing that we are at this point in the pandemic," he told the board. "We had this disease on its knees."
According to Myers, vaccines are the key to flattening the curve. He reported that there have been 30,824 cases in Alachua County to date.
The overall positivity rate of 14.8 is increasing. In January, 453 out of 100,000 people tested positive, but now it is up to 602 per 100,000.
"Clearly we have taken a step backward," Myers said.
The vaccination rate in Alachua County is 63 percent. Of the 239,307 residents eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, 151,097 are fully vaccinated.
Starting Friday, Myers said the health department will be going back into schools with vaccine clinics and will visit all parts of the county over the next four weeks.
Until the vaccination rate increases, Myers said the positivity will continue to rise.
BOCC Chair Ken Cornell thanked Myers for his report and said, "Keep giving us the data."
Commissioner Anna Prizzia made a motion for the mask mandate.
"The time is now," said Prizzia. "There are more infected people than ever."
She made a motion for a seven-day mandate for universal masking while indoors in public settings for ages 2 and up when two or more people are present. The motion passed unanimously with Commissioner Charles Chestnut absent.