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County makes improvements at POD

SEBRING — After a rough roll out for the COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday, the Highlands County Board of County Commissioners has made improvements that have streamlined the process.

Public Information Officer Gloria Rybinski said the main problems was, when people registered online on Monday, they saw a registration number but did not hit the “submit” button that was located at the bottom of the page. Individuals showed up on Tuesday assuming they had appointments when they only had a registration number.

By Thursday, Rybinksi said some people waited as little as 15 minutes in line to get to the registration table while at the peak of business, the total time from entry to exit was about an hour and 45 minutes.

The county’s Emergency Management Manager LaTosha Reiss said they are beta testing new computer software in the county’s efforts to be more user-friendly. The new software could roll out as early as today but, she said they want to test it as much as possible to make sure it does what they want it to.

Reiss said they will honor the registration numbers and she urged those with them to call the Vaccine Hotline at 863-402-6780. The hotline is extremely busy and is being staffed with county employees until other staff can be hired. Rybinski urged patience with the call center as they are fielding hundreds of calls. The operators can help with appointment information but not medical questions.

The portal for vaccine appointments will reopen on Monday at 8 a.m., according to the HCBCC website. Visit highlandsfl.gov/vaccine_information /index.php and follow the links.

“They need to consult with their primary doctors about any conditions they have,” Rybinski said.

Some things Reiss suggested to help individuals navigate the point of distribution (POD) as easily as possible. Use the west entrance nearest the former Kmart in back of the Lakeshore Mall. Only show up at the POD if you have a confirmed appointment by email or phone call. Keep in mind, a registration number is not the same as a confirmed appointment.

Everyone will need to have a photo ID. When you enter the mall, you will check in with a staff member and enter a four-lane queue. From there, the lanes will be funneled into two lanes. Markers on the floor will show people where to stand to keep everyone socially distanced. At the check in desk (in the former arcade) there will be a form to fill out and return. Seats will be provided to fill out the forms.

From there, a nurse will call clients back behind a curtained area. The nurse will go over the forms and give the injection. There is a waiting area to ensure the patient tolerated the injection well. They stay about 15 minutes, if there is any concern, the patient stays an extra 15 minutes. There are EMS on site if needed. So far, Reiss says the shot has been well tolerated. Clients will leave out of the west door.

AdventHealth has teamed up with the county. Assistant Public Information Officer Karen Clogston said AdventHealth’s personnel are helping with checking in and giving injections.

The injections are given to the county by the Florida Department of Health in Highlands County. Reiss said on Friday the health department did not tell her how many shots would be allotted to them for the upcoming week.

Many people made appointments with several PODs in various counties in order to increase their chances of getting the vaccine. This caused several people to no-show for their appointments in Sebring. Reiss asked that if the appointment is not needed in Sebring to cancel it so another person can be inoculated.

Masks are required at the POD and can be provided if necessary.

Pets’ best friend dies: Sophy Mae Mitchell Jr., 89, passes at home

SEBRING — Sebring lost a pioneer in both the local Girl Scouts of America and the University of Florida Fightin’ Gator Marching Band on Wednesday night.

The community also lost one of dogs’ best friends and a grin with pure childlike delight that Sophy Mae Mitchell Jr. shared with everyone she met, whether she’d come to love you or not, although she usually would.

Mitchell died at home Wednesday night at the age of 89, leaving behind a 15-year-old pup named “Misty” and a legacy of finding homes for orphaned animals for at least 21 years.

Officially, Mitchell retired from animal rescue in 2016 when she lost a bid for an exception to let her keep kennels at her Crescent Drive home in spite of city zoning. Unofficially, according to friends, she still trapped and adopted out stray cats, including those that once lived in the now-demolished Hotel Nan-ces-o-wee.

Patty Dumont of Sebring Angels, a local animal rescue, said Mitchell had reached out to her recently to ask her to make sure her cats were cared for.

“She really had a life of service,” Dumont said.

Diana Albritton, another friend and founder of Knotty Girl, a local charity for breast cancer awareness and recovery, said everyone loved Mitchell, and she loved them. Though her health had declined and she had become more confused in the last couple of years, it never seemed to get her down, Albritton said.

“Sophy Mae always had her home and heart open to help everyone, and [was] very dedicated to the forgotten dogs and cats in the community,” Albritton said. “I can still see her homemade flyers she would make to raise funds and offer adoption information.”

Mitchell’s animal rescue started in 1995, when she found and brought home two stray dogs from St. Croix. Albritton remembered her at Lunch Club Wednesday, a ladies networking club, and the Sebring Area Chamber of Commerce monthly networking lunches, prior to the pandemic. Scarcely taller than five feet, Mitchell held the floor telling people of the animals she had for adoption with the biggest, brightest smile.

“I will miss that grin,” Dumont said. “She had the pure delight of a child.”

Mitchell could remember when Girl Scouts of America was a new thing in Highlands County. The organization didn’t arrive locally until the late 1920s when the founder and Mitchell’s mother, Sophy Mae Mitchell Sr., started getting a troop going before her daughter was of age to join.

“My mother founded the Girl Scouts in Sebring,” Mitchell told the Highlands News-Sun in 2017. “I was born in 1931 and I grew up in Girl Scouts. With Sebring being a small town, Girl Scouts was our way of life. Social activities were things that you could walk to and where your parents knew you were going to be safe.”

Soon after founding a troop, the Girl Scouts of Highlands County got approval for a WPA-built Girl Scout house in 1939 that was still in operation three years ago, but fell into disrepair after Hurricane Irma and sits closed surrounded by county government buildings.

Before that happened, however, the county had to remove an old sidewalk inscribed with names of local Girl Scouts and their leaders. Members of Troop 773 copied the names through paper rubbings then re-etched them into a new sidewalk when it was poured on July 3, 2014.

Mitchell rewrote her mother’s name alongside scouts and public officials who helped rewrite the other names.

“Sophy never had a short story,” Albritton added, noting that one of her favorites was how Mitchell became the first woman in the University of Florida Marching Band.

Mitchell, who had received training in band music with the Sebring High School Band, under direction of Peter “Prof” Gustat and his son, Paul, carried the banner for the UF band during her freshman year in 1948, but moved up to play the bell lyre as a sophomore, an instrument she took up again in 1973 as a member of the Gator Alumni Band.

In 1949, the University of Florida had been co-educational for two years already, but no women had attempted to join the marching band.

“When I got here, they didn’t have girls in the band,” Mitchell said in 2015, “because girls had skirts in those days.”

Colonel Harold Bachman, director of Bands, also did not want skirts in his marching band, but he recognized Mitchell’s abilities on percussion instruments and had special uniforms made for her and another female member, Mitchell said. They marched in front, ahead of the trombone line and behind the majorettes, both on the football field and in parades.

Mitchell, also a member of the concert band, was inducted into the University of Florida Gator Band Hall of Fame on April 2, 2009, at a ceremony on the Gainesville campus.

Karron Neale Tedder knew Mitchell best as a Gator football fan. She said Mitchell would join Tedder and others at the Blue Lagoon Saloon, prior to the pandemic, to cheer and sometimes jeer the team during televised games. Tedder knew of Mitchell’s love for the band and for pets in need of homes, and admired her love for what she enjoyed doing.

She always tried to live life to the fullest and be happy,” Tedder said. “Her voice was always so kind.”

Arrangements are still being made for her funeral and memorial service.

County sees better COVID day

SEBRING — Highlands County had a better day in terms of new COVID-19 cases and positivity but not in deaths when the Florida Department of Health COVID reports came out on Saturday.

Highlands County had 35 new cases of coronavirus. That may not sound like good news but considering in the past week the county has seen a record-setting day of 105 cases followed by 95 cases, 35 new cases sounds much better.

Highlands County’s total cases has risen to 5,492. The FDOH COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard shows residents make up 5,434 of the cases and 58 non-residents make up the rest of the cases. The daily median age was 41 on Saturday with an overall median age of 52.

Over the past seven days, Highlands County has had 414 cases. The average daily cases is 59.14. There were three deaths reported since Friday’s report. The death toll has climbed to 217.

There were 434 tests processed for the day. The tests and new cases resulted in a positivity rate of 7.6%, which is the lowest since Dec. 26.

Highlands has had 456 hospitalizations, or 8% of all cases. The Agency for Health Care Administration reported 68 people diagnosed with coronavirus as the primary diagnosis. AHCA also showed the ICU bed census as 24 with six beds available.

Long-term care facilities have had 513 cases of COVID, which is 9% of all cases. Highlands County has had 56 COVID-19 deaths from residents and staff at long-term care facilities. Corrections has risen to 81 cases.

FDOH reported 55 vaccinations on Jan. 8 with six people completing the second dose to finish the vaccination series. There have been 1,563 vaccines given overall and 12 of those people received both doses to complete the set.

Statewide, there were 15,445 new cases reported on Saturday. Florida has now seen 1,464,697 cases of infection. The report shows 1,438,579 residents have been infected and 26,118 non-residents have been diagnosed.

Florida has seen a total of 23,153 deaths with 22,804 residents and 346 non-resident deaths attributed to coronavirus. There were 140,344 tests processed with 125,223 negative results, according to Saturday’s report.

The United States reported a record 310,080 new cases, according to the COVID Tracking Project’s Friday evening report. There were 2,137,494 tests processed for the day.

There were an additional 3,777 deaths and 131,889 hospitalizations, leaving the seven-day averages for cases, deaths and hospitalizations at all-time highs. Through the first eight days of 2021 there have been 23,083 deaths in the U.S.

Saturday’s numbers are likely to be on the ugly side, as well, as the California Department of Public Health reported 52,636 cases and a record-setting 695 deaths on Saturday. The 695 deaths were 110 more than the previous high of 585, which was reported on Dec. 31, 2020. The 52,636 cases is the second-highest seen by the state.

New Jersey reported a record-high 6,435 cases on Saturday and 102 additional deaths.

Ohio reported 8,374 cases Saturday, which is 900 more than the state’s 21-day average and 55 deaths.

According to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering, the U.S. has seen 21.96 million cases and has 370,094 deaths.

Globally, there have been 89.24 million cases and had 1.92 million deaths.