Sarasota-Manatee experts say the key to reducing COVID is vaccination

Elizabeth Djinis

For those who briefly thought the pandemic was over this summer, local medical experts made one thing clear in a panel last week: it is absolutely not.

At a Manatee Community Foundation and The Patterson Foundation virtual panel last week, Florida Department of Health in Manatee County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Bencie flashed a map on the screen that showed red dots corresponding to COVID-19 case counts across the globe. Much of the southeastern and northeastern United States were covered in red. That was not a good sign, Bencie said.

“We still have a lot of red in our country and particularly in the South, so we have more work to do as it relates to COVID-19,” she said. “We can’t emphasize enough the importance of getting the vaccine at this point, because this [Delta] variant is mutating and getting away from the original virus that we all saw last year, and it really is severe in its presentation.”

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More than 19 million people in Florida – or 69% of the eligible population – have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to Sept. 2 numbers from the Florida Department of Health.

Syringes containing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine are ready to be administered during a vaccination clinic in Sarasota.

Dr. Lisa Merritt, the executive director of the Multicultural Health Institute, has worked to increase vaccination, particularly focusing on communities of color. She’s proud of the fact that Florida increased the percentage of Black people vaccinated, but it still lags behind white and Hispanic residents. 

So much of success at the grassroots level is meeting people where they are. A community vaccination event in Oneco had a 95% show rate because of an effective model – a drive-up site with details communicated by telephone rather than online. 

And when dealing with communities of color, having doctors of color on hand makes a difference, Merritt said. 

“Having physicians of color on-site to speak in the language as well as to look like the people that we want to target is extremely powerful,” she said. 

She still sees far more progress to be made. When she talks to people in other states, Florida is not viewed as a pandemic success story.

“It’s an embarrassment what’s going on here to some degree from a public health perspective,” Merritt said. “All this confusion, the lack of adequate consistent race and ethnicity data, the school mask controversy – meanwhile, new mutations and variants are coming in, the hospitals are bulging and they’re sending refrigerator trucks to handle the deaths in central and South Florida right now.”

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But there is some good news. The hospital has also reported a consistent drop in COVID-19 patients over the past week. As of Friday, 85% of its COVID-19 patients were unvaccinated. 

Bencie and Merritt say it’s still too early to derive a trend from lowering numbers. 

“I’m talking to my infectious disease colleagues and they’re a little skeptical that it’s going to drop that quickly just because of these variants and sub-variants that are out there,” Bencie said. 

But there is one simple way to get numbers down – vaccination.

“If we had mask adoption and vaccination, people could make that happen if they want to see that reality happen,” she said. “If everybody ran out and got their vaccines, we’d see a drop-off.”

This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire and engage the community to take action on issues related to COVID-19 Response.