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Vaccine rollout smooth, as cases rise

David Adlerstein
The Apalachicola Times

Franklin and Gulf county health officials are seeing tight cooperation when it comes to the vaccine roll-out, but warn residents that an increase in COVID-19 cases requires continued vigilance.

With 964 Gulf residents vaccinated as Tuesday morning, and Franklin close behind with 818, Sarah Quaranta, administrator of the state health department serving both counties, said the rollout has gone well, as the department awaits a further supply of the Moderna vaccine.

FDOH

But, she warned, with a positivity rate of 20 percent in Franklin, and 19 percent in Gulf, the urgency is to get it down to acceptable levels.

“Our positivity in Franklin and Gulf County has climbed and we want to see it go back down,” she told members of the Franklin County commission Tuesday morning. “What happened? Back-to-back holidays and travel-related exposures, household clusters, and some outbreaks among organizations and businesses.

“Remember to follow CDC guidance (keep hands clean, wear a mask when you cannot socially distance, stay home when sick and avoid large crowds,” she said.

Taking part via telephone with the department’s preparedness planner, nurse Nicole Sandoval, Quaranta said vaccine are continuing to come into the two counties in “low quantity shipments.”

The department now is relying on those age 65 and older crowd to make their appointments online, with Franklin County residents asked to go to https://tinyurl.com/ya6vanjl and Gulf County to https://tinyurl.com/y9x6h86a

Because the department is still testing for COVID-19, continuing to conduct contact tracing and providing other necessary health service, a stretched-thin staff meant that early on “demand was so great that calls overwhelmed our phone system that was Panhandle-wide,” Quaranta said.

“This caused a lot of long wait times and dropped calls,” she said, and so the online link was created to streamline the system.

She stressed that vaccine providers, including Ascension Sacred Heart Gulf and Weems Memorial Hospital, are all taking part in Operation Share the Wealth, working from a shared list and moving down it based on first scheduled, first shot.

“Weems has been a phenomenal partner since the beginning of this pandemic,” she told commissioners. “The process so far actually has been working well.”

In reviewing data that showed 2,900 Franklin County residents over age 65, and a similar number in Gulf, Commissioner Smokey Parrish pressed his colleagues to draft a letter to authorities urging that more supply flow into the county, particularly since local health officials have coordinated a smoother delivery process than appears to be the case in more populated Florida counties. The request passed 4-0, with Commissioner Noah Lockley absent due to COVID-19; he and his wife are recuperating at Weems.

“This is a supply problem, not a distribution problem,” said Commissioner Bert Boldt/

Chairman Ricky Jones asked about the process of ensuring local residents receive the vaccine, since others living outside the counties are able to make appointments and fill slots.

Quaranta said it’s a two-way street, as local residents have been able to get vaccinated outside the county, all because as a federal program, there is no allowance for limiting vaccines to local residents.

“We are very aware that vaccine tourism is a real thing,” she said. “With such small allocations we are trying our best that our residents are receiving the vaccine as priority.

“if you register for the link we’re asking questions that include permanent and current address,” Quaranta said.

Commissioner Jessica Ward filled in the health department director’s unstated point, reminding her colleagues that local authorities cannot restrict who may receive the vaccine under their auspices.

“These are scheduled appointments, there are no walk-ins,” said Sandoval. “We’re working off a list in chronological order; the next appointment goes to the next person in line.

“If we have a no-show we’re instantly filling it,” said Quaranta. “We cannot waste this vaccine.”

Sandoval said the two counties will have sufficient quantities to provide second dose vaccinations. “They are automatically held back by the feds,” she said.

In Gulf County, as of Tuesday morning, 1,561 people, very few of them non-Florida residents, had tested positive since the pandemic began, and among these 79 hospitalizations and 31 deaths, both in keeping with the 5 percent and 2 percent rates statewide.

In Gulf County there have been so far 120 cases in long-term care facilities, 8 percent, which is higher than the statewide average.

In Franklin, there have been 1,127 cases, 23 hospitalizations and four deaths, both well below the state averages.

There have been 69 cases in long-term care facilities in in Franklin, an increase in recent weeks that now exceeds the statewide average. No deaths have been reported.

The situation in state correctional facilities in the two counties continues to far outpace the state average, with 352 prisoner cases in Franklin and 298 in Gulf.