‘We are in remission:’ Orange County looks toward normalcy as masks rules are relaxed

COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations on the decline

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – With COVID-19 cases declining and more people getting vaccinated every day, Orange County leaders are starting to express optimism when it comes to the regional outlook on the pandemic.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that allow fully vaccinated people to forgo masks in most settings is in line with the phased plan he had for easing the county’s mask mandate.

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That plan, however, was nullified when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order doing away with mask mandates and any other coronavirus-related restrictions enacted by local governments.

Demings’ three-phased approach called for no longer requiring facial coverings outdoors once 50% of residents 16 and older have been vaccinated. As of Friday, Orange County has reached that milestone.

“In essence, we were spot on with the recommendations that we were putting in place so that is just extraordinarily encouraging. So we’re making some modifications here even within Orange County. I know the CDC released new guidelines yesterday, as we have talked about and it made the news, and to some extent, created a lot of excitement I think for all Americans that we are soon to return to some sense of normalcy,” Demings said.

Most local businesses are still requiring masks indoors and the mayor doesn’t expect that to change just yet.

While the news from the CDC is an improvement for fully vaccinated people, Demings cautioned that those who have not yet received a shot need to remain cautious.

“We had nearly 300 new cases reported yesterday and three additional deaths. So that does mean that the virus is still in our community and if you have not been vaccinated, then you should consider wearing a facial covering, you should consider protecting yourself, your family members, if you have children you should consider protecting them by wearing facial coverings,” Demings said.

Dr. Raul Pino, the health officer for the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, agreed that precautions still need to be taken but said the pandemic’s current toll on the community is much different now than it was in July 2020 when the state was reporting 10,000-plus new cases each day.

Friday saw 3,571 new COVID-19 infections statewide and Pino said he expects that number along with deaths and hospitalizations to continue to decrease.

“The declining in number of cases is just constant and precipitous. We are in remission totally in our county here,” Pino said.

The fact that children between 12 and 15 can now get the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is also expected to have a positive impact. Previously, only those 16 and older could get inoculated.

“If we want to continue to make an impact in our pandemic, we really have to vaccinate people between 15 to 24 years old. It is critical for the colleges in our area, it is critical for those places involved with young adults between 15 and 24, gyms, other places to try to increase vaccination rates, because this is where the bulk of the new cases are at,” Pino said.

To make that process easier, the health department plans to continue its partnership with Orange County Public Schools to host vaccination events on campus.

Clinics will be hosted at Wekiva High School and East River High School from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturday and more on-campus events are planned for later this month.

Pino said for those itching to get back to pre-pandemic life, inoculation is their best option.

“I think the worrying has been to a point that we have achieved a level of immunization that justifies relaxing those measures for those who are fully vaccinated,” Pino said.