By Cindy Jackson
March 7, 2021
COVID-19 is believed to have made its way to the United States in 2020, having been traced to an open-air market in Wuhan, China in 2019 as the place of origin.
The US reported its first case in January 2020 in the state of Washington. As of March 1, 2021, there have been 28.48 million total confirmed cases in the USA.
Here in Florida, Sarasota was the site of the state’s first case – diagnosed in Manatee County in February of 2020.
Since then (as of February 23, 2021), the Florida Department of Health has reported 1,797,728 individual cases, 76,219 hospitalizations, and 28,934 deaths. Compared to other states, Florida has the third-highest count of confirmed cases and the fourth-highest count of deaths.
COVID in the COUNTY
In Nassau County, the first case was reported in early March of 2020 and was believed to have been travel related. Recent statistics show a total of 7,363 cases and 116 deaths.
It was on March 18, 2020 that Nassau County declared a State of Emergency relating to the COVID pandemic and on July 3, 2020, it declared that wearing a mask was mandatory. That mandate was rescinded on September 24, 2020, although today, most retail establishments, restaurants and other public places still require masks for entry.
The City of Fernandina Beach also enacted its first mask ordinance on July 2, 2020, and at press time it remains in effect.
FREE vaccines to protect against the COVID-19 virus arrived on the scene in December of 2020.
Those free vaccines are part of a federal program. While the exact formula is not known, the feds determine the amount each state is to receive.
From there, it is up to the governor of each state to determine where and how many vaccines will be distributed to each county or municipality – and who qualifies.
In Florida, Governor DeSantis identified the first group to receive the free vaccines were individuals over the age of 65 (having been identified as most vulnerable population for contracting COVID-19).
Nassau County’s first allocation consisted of 975 doses of the Moderna variety.
Since then, all allocations received by Nassau County, FL, have been made by Pfizer.
Both require two doses – administered 21-28 days apart (depending on the type of vaccine) and both have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
A third, one-shot vaccine has recently been made available. It was developed by Johnson and Johnson.
In Nassau County, (Florida), the Department of Emergency Operations (EOC) is the agency in charge of responding to this public health emergency and administering the vaccine in strict adherence to guidelines and protocols established by the Florida Department of Health (FDOH).
The local arm of the FDOH is led by Dr. Eugenia Ngo-Seidel, MD, MPH — the Director for the Florida Department of Health in Nassau County.
The EOC for Nassau County is led by Greg Foster who has had a very long and distinguished career in public health and safety. Confirmed as the EOC Director in 2019, prior to that, Foster served the Sheriff’s Office in a number of positions during the course of his 25-plus year career – as a patrol officer, a detective, the administrator of the Nassau County Detention Center and most recently, he served as the head of the criminal investigation division.
The first crisis Foster was tasked with responding as EOC Director was Hurricane Dorian – an emergency situation and so declared in the states of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia. Many coastal counties from Florida to North Carolina also issued mandatory evacuation orders—including Nassau County.
Dorian was the first major hurricane of the 2019 Atlantic hurricane season and right behind it was the Hurricane season of 2020 – a year declared the biggest hurricane season ever — in all of Florida’s history.
It is the EOC that is tasked to prepare for each and every emergency situation that may come the way of Nassau County. As such, the agency is always training—training for events like hurricanes, storms, power outages . . . and add to that, potential modern-day emergencies like bomb threats and active shooter situations.
The training “chapter” on pandemics, has never needed to be updated. Until now.
As Director Foster explains, history shows that pandemics happen every 100 years. COVID-19 was right on schedule.
The last pandemic was the Spanish Flu – otherwise known as the influenza pandemic of 1918. Lasting approximately two years, it infected 500 million people and killed an estimated 20 million.
Nassau County has not experienced anything like it – until now.
The Spanish Flu, explains Foster, was a completely different illness — with radically different affected demographics. The morbidity rate from the Spanish Flu was most pronounced among young adults. Conversely, for COVID-19, the most vulnerable population has been identified as individuals over the age of 65 and the strategy to combat and contain are radically different.
Consequently, to control the spread of COVID-19, the strategy has been to vaccinate first members of the population that are over the age of 65 first which was then followed by health care personnel with direct patient contact and residents and staff of long-term care facilities.
With an increasing amount of the vaccine becoming available, those who qualify has been expanding ever so quickly.
Earlier in the week, Governor DeSantis issued an executive order allowing teachers, police officers and firefighters over the age of 50 to be vaccinated. That changed on March 4th, 2020, when teachers of any age could receive the shot. It is rapidly changing.
Just last week during a public forum, when asked about the directive involving teachers, police and fire fighters, EOC Director Foster had this to say “It will take us (Nassau County) just one week to vaccinate every teacher and every police officer over 50 . . . there just aren’t that many.”
HERE IN NASSAU COUNTY, FLORIDA
December 14, 2020, marked the date that vaccines arrived in the state of Florida.
As of March 6, 2021, here in Nassau County, 18,474 individuals have been vaccinated.
These statistics are indeed impressive.
To wit, according to 2019 statistics, Nassau County’s population is approximately 88,625 with approximately 20% of the population being over age 65.
Simple math would suggest the targeted population for the first vaccine would result in 20,000 individuals being vaccinated. And that there were.
In fact, as publicized by Governor DeSantis, Nassau County is actually 3rd in the state in the rate of vaccinations. Here’s what was “tweeted” by the governor on March 1, 2020:
Florida has vaccinated millions of seniors representing over 50% of our senior population. Counties with noteworthy coverage of seniors include:
St. Johns – 78% (of seniors vaccinated)
Leon – 73%
Nassau – 71 %
Alachua – 67%
Indian River – 67%
WHO IS NEXT IN LINE
At a recent meeting of the Rotary Club of Amelia Island Sunrise, Eric Forestal, Chief Operations Officer at Barnabas, asked Director Foster about underserved populations. Foster explained that that demographic is easily identified and that such “closed pod” or “pop up” events have been scheduled.
Foster spoke of there being an active outreach effort to Hispanic and African American churches. One such event took place at the First Baptist Church in Fernandina Beach and was staffed by medical professionals within the church’s congregation. Similar “pop-up” events will be taking place in Callahan and other locations throughout the west side of the county. Foster is quick to underscore that these events are for scheduling an actual appointment – not for getting one’s name on a waiting list.
Foster is also at the ready with all sorts of stats and facts about the Nassau County community (and beyond) noting that in any given population, it is estimated that up to 30% will decide not to be vaccinated.
Locally, since the initial “hiccup” that occurred in the Eventbrite system which was the initial plan of attack for getting Nassau County residents vaccinated, Nassau County’s plan has been executed almost seamlessly.
Foster has publicly praised the Board of County Commissioners on its leadership in insisting that a waitlist be created for those individuals who lack computers or who aren’t necessarily computer savvy. A waitlist system was enacted immediately thereafter.
VOLUNTEERISM IN THE COUNTY
According to Foster, the first day of the “wait list,” was activated, 8,000 people signed up. The next day, 12,000. Foster has shared that on the first day, he had just eight volunteers. He has jokingly stated that he was surprised when some of them showed up for a second shift. In recent days, the Covid Call Center has had up to twenty volunteers and it is working well.
One volunteer at the EOC recounted a conversation that speaks to the people of Nassau County Florida when he described how delighted a female caller was to have received an appointment – and was actually given directions to the vaccination site. When she didn’t recognize the name of the road, she said there must be some mistake. Turns out she was from Nassau County, New York . . . to which she then responded, “I knew it was too good to be true . . . you have been too nice.”
HOW TO VACCINATE
Experiences here shown that Nassau County’s system of “closed pods” and actual appointments are far more efficient and effective than the practice of “open” pod vaccination sessions offered in other counties where individuals show up, with no appointment, and wait for hours on end.
As Foster frequently states, the EOC is “super Gumby” which translates into being incredibly flexible at a moment’s notice.
Since that one initial adjustment, the County is receiving rave reviews from residents and elected officials alike. The Emergency Management “playbook” for a pandemic has since been completely rewritten and planning is well underway for the next steps.
Another important part of next steps means putting in place and truly embracing the notion of “One Nassau,” which as Foster explains, means looking out for family members, a neighbor and helping to get the word out – one person at a time.
Ultimately, the goal for any community is to reach herd immunity. According to the Mayo Clinic: “Herd immunity occurs when a large portion of a community (the herd) becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely.”
Important to that equation is the reproduction number or R0 which speaks to the average number of people a single person with the virus can infect.
Researchers think that the R0 for COVID-19 is between 2 and 3. This means that one person can infect two to three other people.
It also means 50% to 67% of the population would need to be resistant before herd immunity kicks in and the infection rates start to go down.
After that comes . . .
A RETURN TO NORMALCY
What will that look like?
When reached via email, Director Foster had this to say, “I don’t like using the term “new normal” but that may be what we are looking at.
When we reach herd immunity, the rate of transmission will decrease, in theory, and there will be a relaxing of closures, restrictions, and other methods to reduce transmission, in theory.
With this being said, the point that we will get to herd immunity is unknown at this time. Once it is reached, there will be a period of time in which some people will remain cautious and will avoid crowds, still socially distance, and wear a mask. In turn, there has been indication from the health experts that there will be recommendations to the public that will encourage the continued safety protocols.
There remains to be variants of COVID 19 that are being identified and studied, and as we have observed this year, the Flu season has been less active than recent years, partially due to the safety protocols.”
To keep up to date about the state of COVID-19 in Nassau County, tune into the weekly “Direct from the Director” video series available at www.onenassau.com. Or the Florida Department of Health has a call center available 24/7 1 (866) 779-6121 or email [email protected]
And despite news of Texas and several states across the country deciding to lift their mask mandates and re-open, the Centers for Disease Control encourages everyone to remain vigilant and to wash hands frequently, wear a mask and maintain social distancing.