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COVID-19 sets new records here during January

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of February 4, 2021)

January was a rough month across the board here setting records for new COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, deaths and barrier island cases.

How bad was January? Both Indian River County and the barrier island saw a 43 percent increase in new infections – not a 43 percent increase month over month, but in the cumulative case count since the start of the pandemic.

But there was a bit of encouragement to be found in the fact that more than 10 percent of local residents got vaccinated, with an average of 577 shots per day getting into the arms of locals (see also page 7).

And fortunately, the numbers were headed in the right direction as February began.

Indian River County ended 2020 with 6,875 cases; by the end of January that number had increased to 9,795. The 32963 ZIP code area ended 2020 with 430 cases, and the cumulative total was up to 618 cases at the end of January.

Deaths also rose 42 percent in January over the 2020 total. We ended December with 159 deaths, and ended January with 229 cumulative deaths.

But daily hospitalizations were down this past week. After peaking in the mid-50s, only 25 people were in the hospital as of press time Monday, and 42 percent of intensive-care unit beds were available, according to the Florida Health Care Administration report.

The number of newly reported infections dropped by 118 cases or 21 percent this past week, from 569 cases to 451 cases in the seven days leading up to press time, and we’re now seeing numbers only half as big as mid-January’s peak of 874 cases.

At the same time, the 451 new cases this past week is still significantly higher than July’s “summer surge” of 385 cases in one week.

The barrier island ZIP code added 19 new cases in the seven days leading up to press time, a vast improvement over the 30-plus new cases reported in recent weeks.

As of this week, combined statistics show that one in every six local residents has either received at least one vaccine dose or has recovered from COVID-19 infection in the past few months.

Realizing that we are far from achieving herd immunity, Vero Beach this Tuesday was set to discuss a face mask mandate similar to Indian River County’s, but the discussion item was listed in Vice Mayor Rey Neville’s councilman’s matters, not as an action item.

Because no city-specific draft ordinance was distributed in the backup meeting materials, even if three council members want to impose the mandate, it likely will not be voted on at this week’s meeting. Instead, it is likely to be voted on at the next meeting after City Attorney John Turner has a chance to draft and vet an ordinance.

Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke on Monday to a group at The Villages retirement community, saying he’s optimistic about the vaccine situation and the way Florida is getting vaccine out to seniors age 65 and older.

He based that in part on the anticipated approval this month of Johnson and Johnson’s vaccine.

“After 28 days, one dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine was 100 percent effective at preventing death, and nearly 100 percent effective at preventing serious illness,” DeSantis said, adding that the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine can be stored in a regular refrigerator without the special handling of the two-dose vaccines.

“You jab it one time and don’t have to worry about people coming back,” he said. “This will be a really important tool.”

Vero Beach saw Publix pharmacies join the vaccine effort last week, with the eight Publix stores in our county giving up to 100 shots each per day. DeSantis said he hopes to expand this program soon to all of the state’s 750 Publix pharmacies. In addition, Florida is in talks with WalMart and Winn-Dixie pharmacies to serve shoppers in their stores as well.

DeSantis said the only thing that’s holding Florida back is the lack of vaccine supply – a situation he sees the Johnson and Johnson and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines rectifying in a month or two.

That is when life for Florida’s seniors can start getting back to normal, he said: “Once everybody gets vaccinated, the partying and the events you used to have can come back full throttle.”

Florida Emergency Management director Jared Moskovitz on Monday called for the expansion of vaccine production. He said it’s “time to bring every major pharmaceutical company to the table to produce the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine. Florida could have done 500,000 more shots this week if we had more vaccine.”

Florida had distributed more than 2 million shots, vaccinating more than 1.7 million of its 21 million residents as of Monday’s report.