Seminole County will be ready to distribute COVID-19 vaccines, health officials say

Leaders concerned about recent spike in coronavirus cases

FILE - This May 4, 2020, file photo provided by the University of Maryland School of Medicine, shows the first patient enrolled in Pfizer's COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine clinical trial at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. On Monday, Nov. 9, 2020, Pfizer said an early peek at its vaccine data suggests the shots may be 90% effective at preventing COVID-19. (Courtesy of University of Maryland School of Medicine via AP, File) (University of Maryland School of Medicine)

SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. – Seminole County health officials are prepared to begin distributing a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as one is approved and made available, leaders confirmed during a coronavirus news briefing.

The briefing was held on Tuesday, just one day after Pfizer Inc., one of the company’s racing to develop a COVID-19 vaccine amid the ongoing pandemic, reported that early data suggests its shot may be 90% effective.

While that did provide a glimmer of hope worldwide, especially in Seminole County, where cases are currently on the rise, health officials say many questions remain unanswered, including which vaccine or vaccines might be approved and distributed first.

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“That question is the question I think that we all want the answer to. And that is how many vaccines are coming and when will they be here? And I don’t think anyone’s ready to give that answer at this point, I can tell you, Donna [Walsh] asks on every one of her calls, and I ask on every one of my calls: Where is it going to be? What is it going to be? We don’t even know what it’s going to be, it could be Pfizer,” Seminole County Emergency Manager Alan Harris said.

Seminole County health officials said Tuesday there are some vaccine-related questions they do have answers to, and they’re using those to plan accordingly so they’re prepared to begin distribution as soon as possible.

“Seminole County at this juncture stands ready to receive and begin administering that vaccine and by doing that and securing those very critical storage items and apparatuses is going to go a long way as this becomes -- again, much like the ventilators, everybody’s gonna be fighting for that technology to gain that storage capacity. So, here in Seminole, we’ve already hit that stride running and secured that,” Board of County Commissioners Chairman Jay Zembower said.

For example, Harris said they do know they want to distribute the coronavirus vaccine to underserved communities, so they’re making sure they’ve purchased the equipment they know will be needed to do that.

“We know we want to go into the transportation-disadvantaged communities ... we will need shelter when we get there. We know that there’s going to be a large number of individuals that will need vaccination so we purchased items because of that,” Harris said.

Those items include tents, trailers, special ultracold freezers that maintain a temperature of -80 degrees Celsius, according to Harris.

Harris said he’s confident they will be ready to distribute because of the many months they’ve spent planning and practicing.

“We went ahead and started planning months ago just like we planned ... months before we even had our first COVID case, we had gone through an exercise. We’ve actually, we went through the planning process. We already did one exercise, the exercise was a flu vaccine, but we pretended that was COVID,” Harris said. “We had evaluators there to go through that, we identified some logistical needs we would have once the vaccine, that includes anything from a pushcart to put vaccines on it to tinting to light to the trailer, all those things and then we started to procure those things. And then also just look around the county: Do we have those? Can we secure those from locations? So we did a gap analysis to identify what we needed.”

Among other answers county officials have that allowed for further planning are how soon a vaccine could become available and to whom.

A vaccine will be made available once one is approved but not to everyone, according to Donna Walsh, with the Florida Department of Health in Seminole County.

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Walsh said during Tuesday’s briefing that the first doses of the vaccine will be made available to priority groups as outlined by Health and Human Services.

“The priority groups that have been identified as far as we know, to date, with the information that we’re receiving from Health and Human Services, is that the hospitals, the health care workers and other essential workers, and those that I mentioned in those vulnerable populations in our long-term care facilities, nursing homes and ALS,” Walsh said.

She said she expects doses of a vaccine could be available to members of the general public after the first quarter of next year.

“So you’re looking at March, April timeframe. And that really has to do with the extreme volume of vaccines that need to be produced nationwide -- globally, actually, not just nationwide,” Walsh said.

Click here for everything we know about Florida’s plan to distribute a COVID-19 vaccine.

County health officials also discussed the spike in coronavirus cases reported in Seminole County in recent weeks, saying they’re concerned about the rising number of infections.

[READ MORE: COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Seminole County]

Walsh said the county reported 476 new cases last week, nearly 200 more than one month prior, when 280 cases were reported for the week of Oct. 12-18.

“We’ve had almost a 200-case increase within the last month,” Walsh said.

According to Walsh, the county’s daily COVID-19 positivity rate Monday was 9.57%, up from weeks prior.

“If you look at our last week, Nov. 2-8, we had a weekly positivity rate of 7.03% and the prior week, 6.14% with the two week average is 6.58%,” she said.

Last week, Seminole County Medical Director Dr. Todd Husty said the weekly average for single day COVID-19 cases was 65, up from about 20 just a month before.

On Monday, Seminole County reported 66 new cases. Statewide, the Florida Department of Health reported 3,924 new cases on Monday, bringing the state’s overall total to 847,821 cases since March. Seminole County has reported more than 11,000 positive cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

[READ YESTERDAY’S REPORT: Florida reports nearly 4,000 new infections as vaccine trials offer glimmer of hope]

Harris said while the spike is significant enough to raise concern, it isn’t as high as the spike Seminole County and Florida as a whole saw this summer during the peak of the pandemic. County health officials believe that’s largely in part to residents following CDC guidelines in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“We know that because of some of the actions that people have taken -- most of the people in Seminole County have taken. And that is the reason that we’re not seeing the spike as exponential as it was the last time and we hope people continue to do the right thing to protect their friends, their family members and their coworkers,” Harris said.

Zembower reminded residents that the county’s mask mandate remains in effect, despite recent rumors.

“That has not been repealed. When a place with assembly, business or other places open to the public in Seminole County, individuals should maintain social distancing,” Zembower said.

County officials have not issued fines related to the mandate and say it remains in place to educate.

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