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Manatee County leaders fear coronavirus variant behind deadly outbreak

Delta variant cases rise are rising in Florida. Did it fuel a COVID-19 outbreak that closed the county government center in Bradenton?
COVID-19 vaccines and testing have been offered to Manatee County government staff after an outbreak spread to a sixth employee at the downtown administration building.
COVID-19 vaccines and testing have been offered to Manatee County government staff after an outbreak spread to a sixth employee at the downtown administration building. [ TIFFANY TOMPKINS | ttompkins@bradenton.com ]
Published Jun. 22
Updated Jun. 23

Manatee County leaders have asked state health officials to investigate whether a more contagious and virulent strain of the coronavirus caused the deaths of two county workers and left three others in the hospital.

The two workers died of COVID-19 within a four day period last week. All five infected employees worked in the county’s information technology department on the seventh floor of the Manatee County Administration Building in downtown Bradenton.

None of the workers who tested positive were vaccinated, said County Administrator Scott Hopes. He said Monday that a sixth county employee has been diagnosed with the coronavirus as well as three workers at Port Manatee.

The holder of a master’s degree in epidemiology, Hopes said the spread of the disease and the death of two of the five initial cases suggests a COVID-19 variant. He has asked the Florida Department of Health to confirm that.

Related: U.S. increasingly unlikely to meet Biden’s July 4 vax goal
Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes speaks during an April  press conference.
Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes speaks during an April press conference. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

“As an epidemiologist, I don’t believe what we saw is the same SARS-CoV-2 virus we were dealing with a year ago,” he said. “It appears to be very contagious and has a high mortality rate, at least from what we’ve seen.”

Manatee’s outbreak comes as data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the Delta variant is spreading in Florida with at least 72 confirmed cases discovered in May. Federal health officials and the World Health Organization have classified Delta as a “variant of concern.” It is believed to be more contagious and in the United Kingdom, where it quickly became the dominant variant, it had a higher rate of hospitalizations, according to The Guardian.

The presence of variants can only be determined by conducting a genetic analysis of the virus from positive tests samples, a process known as sequencing. Only a small percentage of positive tests are sequenced. In Florida, over 40,000 cases have been sequenced and published since January 2020.

Florida’s 72 cases came from a sample of 5,552 positive tests conducted during a four-week period through May 22.

Michael Teng, an associate professor at the University of South Florida who is an expert in immunology and vaccine development
Michael Teng, an associate professor at the University of South Florida who is an expert in immunology and vaccine development [ University of South Florida ]

The variant may be at least 50 percent more transmissible than regular COVID-19, said Michael Teng, a virologist and immunologist at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine.

Its presence has raised concerns that the number of coronavirus cases in Florida could rise again. Of particular worry is that people who have skipped their second dose of the two-shot Pfizer and Moderna vaccinations could still be vulnerable to the new strain, Teng said.

Only 41 percent of Florida residents are fully vaccinated, according to state data.

Related: Florida added 10,629 coronavirus cases, 290 deaths in the past week

“One dose is not going to give you the full amount of immunity you need to be protected against the Delta variant,” Teng said. “The second dose is the thing that will put you over the top.”

Manatee County officials expect to get the results of sequencing testing of its recent cases in the next week. Its county government headquarters reopened Monday after every surface in the nine-story building had been disinfected, cleaned and fogged.

Health officials conducted contract tracing and identified the employee in the IT department classified as patient zero, the term for the first person in a group to be infected. They were able to confirm that two vaccinated employees who had contract with infected workers tested negative for the coronavirus.

Hopes said it had been a tough time for employees at the center. The two who died were long-time employees and familiar to many who worked at the center.

“It’s a combination of fear and sorrow,” he said of the mood among his staffers.

Many more county workers and visitors to the building wore masks on Monday, Hopes said. A number of employees also got tested and their first shot of the vaccination.

Rapid testing of any individual who wants it will be available Tuesday and a vaccination clinic is scheduled for Friday.

“This particular outbreak demonstrated the effectiveness of the vaccine,” Hopes said. “We know of individuals in this department who were fully vaccinated and did not contract the virus.”

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