A1 A1
County, DOH: More vaccine wanted

SEBRING — Just as county officials have lobbied to get more vaccine sent to Florida’s Heartland, the local office of the Florida Department of Health has also asked for more doses.

May Kay Burns, administrator of the Florida Department of Health for Highlands and DeSoto Counties, told the Highlands County commission she has asked for more of the federally allocated vaccine each week. Her last request for 1,500 doses was cut to 800.

She said the federal holiday on Monday delayed delivery, but hoped, as she spoke to the board, that the county’s point of distribution (POD) at Lakeshore Mall was receiving them in time to thaw out doses for the noon to 4 p.m. queue.

“We keep asking for more. We get what we get,” Burns told commissioners, noting that the county gets doses based on its overall population, but not based on its percentage of residents age 65 and older. “I told them, ‘It’s taking too long.’”

Part of the problem is just allocations, Burns said. Federal and state-level officials have told local health departments to get the vaccine out within seven days, which they have.

County Administrator Randy Vosburg has talked with officials with U.S. Rep. Greg Steube, Florida Rep. Kaylee Tuck and Florida Senator Ben Albritton on getting more age-based allocations. Right now, he said, the POD can give out 110-120 doses per hour.

“It’s not a capacity to administer,” Vosburg said. “It’s lack of vaccines. We do have a great capacity to give.”

“We can get them through the lines,” Burns said. “We just need the vaccine.”

Burns said AdventHealth would help supply the county if the vaccine was late, with the promise to replenish their supplies after that. Burns said 10% or more don’t show for their appointments, but none of the vaccine has been wasted. It thaws easily, usually by being rubbed between hands, and must be used within 12 hours of thawing, Burns said. As of Tuesday’s meeting, Highlands County has seen no accidental needle sticks or breaks, nor any vials stolen.

“That is not the case in every county,” Burns said. “There have been a whole list of things that have happened in other counties.”

One challenge, she said, is that some outside entities that have received “carve outs” — commercial pharmacies and some clinics — haven’t given out their doses. One health center got 300 doses, she said, administered 30 doses and still had 270 in cold storage.

Burns said, since the allocations are under federal rules, she has talked with Steube’s office about the matter. This week, she said, no one got allocations but health department offices.

Still, that concerned Commission Chair Scott Kirouac, given that 19,400 local residents had signed up for shots and the 270 sitting on ice might hold up allocations for the 20,000.

“We need to take action. We need to take action now to remedy that,” Kirouac said. “If you feel that it’s hurting our allocation moving forward, I want to be involved with that.”

Emergency Manager LaTosha Reiss said state officials have told her and the Health Department that they are cutting off supplies to partners other than the Health Department for those doses.

Reiss said the county fixed its old registration system, which is moving smoothly now. However, a statewide registration system called “Sharecare,” now in testing with some counties, will become the standard if all goes well.

The county will upload all its data into the system and people already registered would keep their place in line, Reiss said. Meanwhile, the state has asked Highlands to look for a larger venue than the south-end meeting room at Lakeshore Mall to handle a larger number of vaccinations.

Reiss said state officials have also looked into concerns about interstate and international vaccine tourism, for ways to identify, monitor and address that.

Commissioners asked about the second dose, which for the Moderna vaccine is required a minimum of 28 days after the first dose. Reiss said people will not need to register again. For second-dose clinics, all they’ll need is their vaccination card, which they got with the first dose. So far, the county has vaccinated 1,380 people with zero medical interventions and only minor side effects, Reiss said Tuesday morning.

Vosburg said people don’t need to worry if they miss the 28th day. It will be effective if they get it after then.

Kirouac asked Burns about supplies for second doses, and she said federal and state officials will give word about a second-dose allocation on Thursdays — possibly Thursday next week. Reiss said there is a plan in place, with email forms, to get the word out once they know.

Commissioner Kevin Roberts said he would like to see if information technology professionals could create a way to let people know where their name is on the waiting list. They are, he said, in “total limbo,” not knowing if they can make long-range plans until they get called. Reiss said she would look into it.

Separate fires lead to one death
  • Updated

LAKE PLACID — An exhausting shift for firefighters and medics from the southern part of the county began on Monday evening and ran into the early morning hours Tuesday. Highlands County Fire Rescue units fought two separate mobile home fires. One fire resulted in a death.

Many of the first responders worked both fires in a single shift, according to HCFR Chief Marc Bashoor. HCFR crews responded to the first fire about 5 p.m. Monday after being called to a structure fire on the 300 block of County Road 29 in Lake Placid. The structure in question was a mobile home.

First responders arrived within one minute of getting the emergency call. Upon arrival, firefighters reported fire coming from the residence. Firefighters were able to contain the fire to the bedroom and hallway area, officials said.

No injuries to the residents were reported. One firefighter fell through the floor, shortly after arrival, but he was able to pull himself out; there were no injuries to firefighters either.

Firefighters stayed at the residence for about two hours. The American Red Cross was called in to help the displaced residents.

HCFR units fighting that fire were Sun n Lakes, Highlands Park , Lake Placid, and County EMS. Bashoor said the cause of the fire was a space heater being too close to combustibles.

Several hours later, HCFR units were once again called to a structure fire about 2:30 a.m. Tuesday. This was also another mobile home on fire on Bynwood Lane, off State Road 70. Bashoor said this fire was very close to the Okeechobee County line.

The emergency calls indicated the residence was “50% involved” at that point. When fire crews arrived, after a “lengthy response,” they found the home nearly completely involved, officials said.

The response time to that part of the county (southeast) is about half an hour from the nearest location of Sun n Lakes Fire Department.

First responders did find a resident deceased in the home.

The State Fire Marshal and Highlands County Sheriff’s Office are investigating the fire. There was no update on the cause as of Tuesday.

Sun n Lakes, Lorida, Highlands Park, and Lake Placid firefighters were on the scene.

Bashoor said Highlands County does not have an automatic mutual aid with Okeechobee County. He will eventually have talks with several jurisdictions regarding mutual aid.

County employees test positive

SEBRING — Highlands County government may have to “close” some small departments and send other employees to work from home.

County Administrator Randy Vosburg told the Board of County Commission on Tuesday that a number of employees testing positive had reached a level that may prompt him to re-institute work-from-home protocols.

He said that some departments already have some people working from home, left over from when the county had to comply with a statewide shutdown.

Public Information Officer Gloria Rybinski did not have the exact number of infected county employees available at press time Tuesday, and Vosburg did not elaborate at the meeting. He did say that some small departments with only two or three members might have to “close.”

Rybinski clarified his statement to say that nothing will “close,” per se. People may have to conduct business with county employees via email or phone, which is encouraged already, to reduce exposure.

To date, since the beginning of the pandemic in Florida, Highlands County government has had 44 employees catch the coronavirus, Rybinski said.

Vosburg promised commissioners that he would work with Rybinski and her assistant to get word out to them and county residents about any changes in county operations.

His revelation came after Emergency Manager LaTosha Reiss reported that the county Emergency Operations Center has been activated under a statewide state of emergency for 309 days, since March 16, 2020.

As of Tuesday morning, she said, 5,830 residents and 61 non-residents had tested positive, and 232 had died as a result of the virus. The county is ranked 46th out of Florida’s 67 counties for case growth, with a 3.96% growth rate. Previously, Reiss said, it was 48th with a 3.46% growth rate.

The county is adding 45.9 cases per day per 100,000 people, Reiss said, compared to 63.5 per day per 100,000 for Florida.

The county had 61 people hospitalized as of Tuesday morning, Reiss said, but also quoted an estimate of 1,063 active cases in the county. It hit a one-week peak of 388 new cases two weeks ago. The county added another 345 new cases this past week.

“That’s well above where we were in July,” Reiss said.

Mary Kay Burns, administrator of the Florida Department of Health for Highlands and DeSoto Counties, told commissioners on Tuesday that despite the county’s vaccination point of distribution running efficiently and constant messaging about taking proper precautions, there have been spikes of cases in local schools.

She has also seen some reluctance among some of the general population and even caregivers in assisted living facilities to getting the shots. She is concerned that asymptomatic spreaders in schools and in nursing homes and long-term care facilities might pass along the virus without knowing it.

COVID-19 tests are still being given by both the county and the Florida Department of Health for Highlands and DeSoto Counties. Health Department tests are being given at its office from 8:30-10:30 a.m. on Mondays at 7205 S. George Blvd. in Sebring. Registration is required by calling 863-386-6040.

The county has free drive-up testing from 8-10 a.m. on Wednesdays on the rear/west side of Lakeshore Mall, 901 U.S. 27 North in Sebring. People can arrive from 8-9 a.m. if they don’t want an appointment, but appointments can be made for 9-10 a.m. by calling 863-386-5090 between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., Monday-Friday.

Reiss said rapid testing is also available for those with health insurance at AdventHealth Prompt Care, Highlands Urgent Care on South George Boulevard and the separate medical practices of Drs. Camilo, Krishnadas, Piccione and Raghuveera. She also said there may be more sites and any of the above listed sites might run out of rapid tests at any time.

If you have symptoms, Reiss said, don’t wait to go to a free testing event. Go immediately to your primary physician.

As always, resident should practice social distancing, wash hands and clean commonly-touched surfaces frequently. Stay home if you feel sick and get checked immediately if you think you have been exposed to COVID-19.

County COVID cases, positivity up
  • Updated

Highlands County’s COVID-19 numbers have been better, but they’ve also been worse. When the Florida Department of Health released the COVID-19 report on Tuesday, the positivity rate in Highlands was up as were the new cases. Testing was down from the previous day.

The county has added new cases of infection, which brings the total of COVID-19 cases to 5,933. Of those cases, 5,872 are of residents and 61 non-residents. There were no new deaths to report, therefore the death toll stands at 232 people whose deaths have been attributed to COVID-19.

The median age of those who have been diagnosed is 52 overall with Tuesday’s daily median being 54.

After a roll of positivity rates being under 10% for the previous three days, Tuesday’s positivity rate was considerably higher at 12.54%. Lower testing may be a factor in the higher positivity rate. There were 343 tests with 300 negative results.

There have been 544 (9%) cases of infection at long-term care facilities. There have been 60 deaths to either residents or staff from long-term care facilities. Corrections has risen to 82 cases in total.

Hospitalizations rose by seven patients overnight. There have been 485 (8%) hospitalized since the pandemic began.

The Agency for Health Care Administration reported 59 patients with COVID-19 were being treated in the hospital as of 3:46 p.m. Tuesday. The agency also showed an adult ICU bed census of 27, leaving five available. That’s two more beds than were available Monday. The census for regular beds of 255 showed 22 beds available.

FDOH reports four first doses of the vaccine and one second dose of the vaccine given Monday. Cumulatively, Highlands is showing 3,047 people who have received the first dose of the vaccine and 349 people have completed their vaccination with the second injection. In all, there have been 3,396 people vaccinated.

Statewide, FDOH showed an increase of 9,816 cases on Tuesday. That was an increase from Monday’s 8,002, which was the lowest for the state since just after Christmas. However, it is far from the worst day as new cases go. The new cases bring the total to 1,589,097. Of those cases, 1,560,015 are from infected residents and 29,082 are from infected non-residents.

Deaths across the state crept up a bit from Monday. The new deaths attributed to COVID were 163, including non-residents. The deaths are categorized as 24,436 residents and 384 non-residents.

The state processed 107,639 tests and 97,980 tests were negative. The new cases and tests produced a positivity rate of 8.97%. The positivity rate has only been under that twice since Jan. 5.

Numbers in the United States were down across the board, according to the COVID Tracking Project’s Monday night report. There were 150,385 new cases reported, which is more than 57,000 fewer cases than the county’s seven-day average.

There were 2,079,206 tests processed for the day, which is nearly 80,000 more tests than the seven-day average. Hospitalizations dropped once again, with 123,848, while there were 1,393 new deaths reported, which is 1,800 fewer than the country has averaged over the past seven days.

Of the 31.2 million vaccine doses distributed to states, roughly have of them have been given, with North Dakota and West Virginia both giving more than 74% of vaccine allotments. Other states have given less than 40% of the allotment received.

California reported just 23,794 cases and 146 deaths on Tuesday, as it became the first state to exceed 300,000 cases.

Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering, the US has seen 24.16 million cases. The country’s death toll was listed as 399,828, although with some states reporting later in the day, the count is likely more than 400,000.

Globally, there have been 96 million cases and 2.05 million deaths.