Vaccination rates rise in Central Florida as COVID-19 infections strain health systems
Central Floridians are heeding the call to boost vaccination rates, as the COVID-19 delta variant rips through the state, and spawns 20% of the nation’s new infections.
More than 31,000 people across Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Lake counties became vaccinated this week, a 51% increase from last week. The steepest climb came in Lake and Seminole counties, which each saw about 73% climbs week over week.
At the same time, the state added 110,477 new infections in the past week with about 18% of test results finding a person positive for COVID-19. Experts say this is the work of the delta variant, deemed the most infectious and aggressive strain of the virus yet.
On Tuesday, Florida reported its highest amount of COVID-19 positive test results since January, 16,038.
The surge has put a strain on health systems statewide, pushing some to limit visitations and halt elective surgeries among other measures.
AdventHealth announced Thursday it had admitted 1,000 COVID-19 across its Central Florida hospital division.
The crowd of COVID-19 patients surpassed the former peak of about 900 patients in the health system for COVID-19-related illness in January 2021.
“What’s extraordinary is the speed at which we are currently seeing new cases,” said Dr. Vincent Hsu, executive director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiologist at AdventHealth, the largest healthcare system in Central Florida. “We haven’t seen the end of it. This is still coming.”
AdventHealth Central Florida Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Neil Finkler said over 90% of the COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated.
High demand forced Orange County to close its COVID-19 testing site at Barnett Park early five of the past seven days, including Friday.
The site can administer about 1,200 free COVID-19 tests a day.
An adjacent COVID-19 vaccination site gave 851 shots for the whole week, including 158 doses to youths ages 12 to 15.
About 62% of Orange County residents ages 12 and older have had at least one shot of the vaccine.
But 1,371 residents tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, the highest single-day infection total since the pandemic began.
The rate of positive tests topped 20% one day, and the two-week average surpassed 16%, figures which rival the region’s worst pandemic days.
The surge, blamed on unvaccinated people and a super-contagious strain of the virus known as the delta variant, led Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings to appeal to residents to get vaccinated and to businesses to return to safety protocols to protect their customers and employees.
“We are in crisis mode,” he said at a briefing in which he addressed the soaring numbers.
Demings, who also declared a local state-of-emergency citing the health crisis, told county employees they have until Aug. 31 to get their first shot of vaccine protection or face discipline that could include termination. He is requiring employees and visitors to wear masks in county facilities.
Some companies responded quickly to the mayor’s plea to take action.
The Walt Disney Company announced in an email Friday the company was “requiring that all salaried and non-union hourly employees in the U.S. working at any of our sites be fully vaccinated... Vaccines are the best tool we all have to help control this global pandemic and protect our employees.”
In the email, the company said its decision was “based on the latest recommendations of scientists, health officials and our own medical professionals that the COVID-19 vaccine provides the best protection against severe infection...” Employees who aren’t already vaccinated and are working on-site will have 60 days to complete their protocols and employees still working from home will need to provide verification of vaccination prior to their return.
Many of the company’s 77,000 workers in Central Florida are represented by the union, Unite Here, which is in talks with the company. Disney is Central Florida’s largest employer.
Also at Disney’s U.S. theme parks, all guests 2 years and older once again must don face masks while indoors. The new policy, announced on Disney’s website, included a requirement for masks on resort buses, Disney’s monorail and Skyliner, regardless of an individual’s vaccination status.
Disney had lifted a similar mandate June 15. Face coverings in outdoor common areas remain optional.
The park does not require visitors to provide proof of vaccination but said it expects unvaccinated guests to wear face coverings indoors.
The decision followed new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that called on all people — even those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 — to wear masks indoors if they live in places with “substantial” or “high” coronavirus transmission. Central Florida falls in that category.
Other companies followed Disney’s lead with similar but not identical policies.
Universal Orlando, for instance, now requires employees to wear face coverings while working indoors and encourages but does not require guests to wear masks. Publix is again making masks mandatory for its employees but not for customers though a spokesperson said, “We encourage customers to follow CDC guidance.”
Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph informed his 316 employees Monday they had to get vaccinated by Aug. 31 or find a new job.
Randolph said he consulted with lawyers before issuing the ultimatum, which exempts people with “sincere religious objections” and employees who cannot get vaccinated because of a pre-existing medical condition. He also arranged for a mobile vaccination unit to visit two of his six locations.
“We have a responsibility to the employees to create a safe work environment and to the general public,” said Randolph, whose constitutional office’s duties include collecting property taxes, processing auto titles and issuing driver’s licenses and IDs. “We’re an agency that just can’t be closed.”
Dr. Raul Pino, state health officer in Orange County, also urged people to get vaccinated even if they have recovered from COVID-19.
“We don’t know yet how long you are protected from getting sick again after recovering,” he said.
According to the CDC, studies have shown vaccination provides a strong boost in protection in people who have recovered from COVID-19.