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Pinellas Health Officials Prepare For COVID-19 Vaccine While Watching Hospitalizations

Pinellas County Department of Health building
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Pinellas County is one of two in the state that will take part in a pilot program that will prioritize the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for use on long-term care residents and health-care personnel.

As Pinellas County health officials prepare to start distributing Pfizer's COVID-19 at long-term care facilities, they're keeping an eye on COVID-19 hospitalizations, which have risen in recent days.

Pinellas and Broward counties will serve as two of the first Florida pilot counties where long-term care facilities will receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Residents and health care personnel at long-term care facilities are expected to start receiving the COVID-19 vaccine this week, said Tom Iovino, a public information officer for the Department of Health in Pinellas County.

"We do know that the staff provide the services for these residents and the residents are there in this communal setting,” he said. “So what we want to do is want to make sure that we have the ability to give immunity to both the people who are working there, and the people who are living there."

Pinellas County will receive about 10,700 doses, which will be distributed by paramedics and nurses, with the National Guard helping with logistics, Iovino said.

Department of Health officials will track who's been vaccinated so they can follow-up with them for the second dose of the vaccine about 21 days later.

Pinellas was chosen as a pilot county, in part, because it has a large number of long-term care facilities, and freezers that can store the Pfizer vaccine, which needs to be held at temperatures around 94 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, or minus 70 Celsius, Iovino said.

"This is a big deal, but it's also a challenge,” he said. “A lot of counties in the state are going to be looking to us as a model, looking to Broward County as a model, how to fashion their response once the vaccines start to land in those counties. So there's going to be a lot of a lot of eyes looking at how we do this, and we want to make sure we do this right."

Since it will take a while to get the vaccination rate to a safe enough level, people should remain cautious, Iovino said.

“The vaccine is great, the vaccine is promising, but we cannot let our guard down yet,” he said. “Until we get enough vaccines where anybody who wants one can walk into a pharmacy or into their doctor's office or into the health department to get one, we are going to have to continue to stay with the masks, the hand washing, the social distancing, so we can control the spread.

“Then once we get that vaccine, if we get enough people vaccinated, we'll watch the numbers on this virus begin to plummet, which is where our goal is.”

Pinellas County also saw hospitalizations where COVID-19 is the primary diagnosis jump almost 25 percent between December 4 and Friday to 230 people.

Iovino said the increase in hospitalizations — while concerning — was not unexpected. It’s now just over two weeks since Thanksgiving, a holiday that saw many people travel and gather in larger groups.

Such behavior is leading health officials to worry about this month's holidays.

"With Hanukkah, with Kwanzaa, with Christmas, with the New Year coming up, we really need people to pay attention to the to the precautions that have been advised since really, the first and early days of this pandemic, which include washing your hands frequently, wearing a mask, keeping social distance and staying home if you feel sick," said Iovino.

Hospitalizations fell 14 percent to 198 Saturday before rising slightly to 207 Sunday.

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