Hillsborough vaccinations plummet, experts fear September COVID wave

Two University of South Florida researchers say Hillsborough County should double daily vaccinations to bring the pandemic under control.
A healthcare worker prepares the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a June 17 vaccination clinic held by the nonprofit Heart for the Homeless in Tampa.
A healthcare worker prepares the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a June 17 vaccination clinic held by the nonprofit Heart for the Homeless in Tampa. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published July 28, 2021|Updated July 28, 2021

In April, a peak of 7,500 Hillsborough County residents received the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine a day. Now, that number has plummeted to 2,300 residents daily.

Two researchers say that math doesn’t add up if Hillsborough County wants to contain the pandemic.

University of South Florida epidemiologist Edwin Michael and computational scientist Ken Newcomb say the county’s vaccination rates must double to bring the resurgent pandemic under control by the fall.

They used Michael’s SEIRcast COVID-19 forecasting and planning portal to show there’s been a 70 percent drop in vaccinations in the county since April. The portal was created with the Center for Research Computing at Notre Dame and uses the latest data from Johns Hopkins University to build models to project the pandemic’s future path.

Related: As Florida hits 10,000 cases a day, experts seek more COVID data from state

Meanwhile, the delta variant is fueling another wave of COVID-19 across Florida and the U.S. Last week, the state reported an average of more than 10,000 new cases a day in the most recent seven-day reporting period.

The unvaccinated account for the vast majority of new infections, public health experts say.

“Around 600,000 to 700,000 people are still susceptible (in Hillsborough) and it is those people who are fueling the resurgence,” Michael said.

The drop in vaccination rates, combined with fewer people practicing social distancing and the contagious alpha and delta variants, Michael said, could lead to another wave of cases in Hillsborough by mid-September.

The county could report as many as 2,800 cases a day then, Michael said. By comparison, it reported an average of about 738 new cases per day over the most recent seven-day period of data collected.

“That is the danger,” he said. “If the current vaccination rate and social measures continue, nothing changes. That’s why we need to rapidly ramp up vaccinations while we practice some form of social protective measures.”

Related: Q&A: Why are a small number of vaccinated people catching COVID-19?

Hillsborough needs to raise first-dose vaccinations to 4,600 to 5,000 residents a day to avoid that September scenario. In the latest seven-day reporting period, Hillsborough vaccinated an average of 1,274 residents per day, including both first and second doses.

Local governments can no longer enact social distancing and mask orders. Gov. Ron DeSantis opposes them and the Florida Legislature gave him the power to overrule local orders.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor on Tuesday released a video in which she discusses the COVID-19 situation with Dr. Jason Wilson, a Tampa General Hospital emergency room physician. They encouraged residents to get vaccinated.

“Here’s the bottom line, if you don’t have a vaccine, you’re going to get COVID,” Wilson said in the video. “You’re going to get the delta variant or some other variant we haven’t even imagined yet.”

Related: Tampa Mayor Jane Castor: ‘Get vaccinated or get COVID’

Although 48 percent of eligible Florida residents ages 12 and up have been fully vaccinated, Michael said the state will not reach mass immunity until that number reaches 85 percent. At the current vaccination rate, Michael said his research shows Hillsborough will not reach herd immunity until late October.

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Michael said the younger population has the mistaken notion that COVID-19 is a significant problem for older people but not them, which he believes is one reason why there has been a rapid decline in vaccinations.

The reality is that the older population is better protected, with state data showing 84 percent of Floridians over the age of 65 have been vaccinated.

“There was a huge demand initially as older people were frightened and felt vulnerable,” Michael said. “The problem now is as you start targeting the younger people, the uptake is slackened.”

Michael said the next two months are crucial in the effort to end the pandemic. He recommends making masks mandatory again until states reach herd immunity, which he defines as about 70 to 80 percent of residents being vaccinated.

Related: In private meeting, DeSantis pushes against masks in schools

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday updated its mask guidance and calls for everyone — including the vaccinated — to wear masks indoors in areas seeing a surge of cases. It also recommends that masks be worn inside schools, though Tampa Bay school districts have no plans to require them.

That came the day after DeSantis reiterated his opposition to mask mandates and masks in schools in a Monday gathering he held with anti-mask physicians. The governor also questioned whether masks work. The CDC says masks can help protect the wearer but are even more effective at preventing the wearer from spreading the virus.

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