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During a Winter Haven City Commission Agenda Review meeting Dec. 9, Winter Haven Hospital President Stephen A. Nierman explained that while COVID-19 related cases spiked in November, the spike was relatively mild compared to the peak numbers of July and August in Polk County.

Mayor Brad Dantzler asked Nierman what he thought about the need for another temporary mask mandate in the City of Winter Haven. Nierman responded that masks have been proven to be effective in preventing the spread of virus in humans, but also said that another round mask mandates may not be necessary.

“I do agree that the decision was the right decision when we did that back in the summer,” Nierman said. “We are not at the point where we were back in the summer right now.”

There is no vote scheduled at this time that would create another mask mandate in Winter Haven. Gov. Ron DeSantis effectively took that option away from local governments in October. Masks remain highly-recommended. The mask mandate was only a matter of discussion at the commission meeting.

Nierman said there were 41 patients receiving COVID treatment at Winter Haven Hospital as of Dec. 9, up from 25 last month. Of the 41, he explained, only seven are receiving critical care. During one day in July, 114 patients were receiving COVID treatment at Winter Haven Hospital and a much higher percentage of those patients were receiving critical care at that time, Nierman said.

Nierman explained to the commission that COVID-19 related treatments have improved a lot over the past few months, and said that may be part of the reason why deaths rates are not spiking at the same rate that new cases are.

He further explained that one of the big challenges at Winter Haven Hospital, currently, is a shortage of staff because many nurses and therapists under contract have decided to work in hot spots in other states, where the pay is often double.

So far this fall, new cases in Polk County have been relatively stable at around five percent, but that rate doubled in November. BayCare, which operates Winter Haven Hospital, owns the Gil Jones Center in Winter Haven, where 1,867 patients were tested there in November. Of those, 193 tested positive, representing a 10 percent positivity rate. 

Polk County Health Department Director Dr. Joy Jackson told the city commissioners that there had been a significant increase in COVID-19 cases since Thanksgiving, though.

“I don't think we are quite as bad as we were when we peaked in mid=July and early August, but we are starting to see the impact of Thanksgiving,” Jackson said. “We all need to be more careful than we think we need to be.”

Jackson warned residents not to expose their relatives at holiday gatherings in December. Jackson acknowledged that death rates were not spiking at the same rate as new cases.

Jackson said the general public could start seeing vaccines available to the public in weeks, or possibly more than a month.

Nierman said he expects his staff to have access to vaccines any day now and that sites where the public gets tested now can be transformed into places where residents can go to get vaccinated.

Both were careful to point out that neither knew exactly when vaccines would arrive in Polk County.

Jackson said initially there will be two different brands of vaccine. Dantzler asked which she preferred. Jackson said there is evidence that both are effective and that experts are currently waiting to see how people who have already started taking them will react.