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‘We thought we were gonna get a break:’ Tampa Bay seniors reflect on rising cases

Older adults across Tampa Bay are coping with the state’s COVID-19 spike differently.
Lorraine Brown, a 65-year-old St. Petersburg resident, does her daily Bible study by the beach in Gulfport.
Lorraine Brown, a 65-year-old St. Petersburg resident, does her daily Bible study by the beach in Gulfport. [ HANNAH CRITCHFIELD, HANNAH CRITCHFIELD | Times ]
Published Aug. 5
Updated Aug. 5

It’s early on the beach in Gulfport — hours before younger volleyball players will arrive after work, or the waterfront bars across the street begin blasting ABBA from their speakers.

For now, the beach belongs to the seniors.

A retiree clad in exercise clothes sits on a nearby bench, talking through his AirPods as his carbon road bike rests on a nearby tree. Another man sunbathes on a chair parked right next to the water.

The day has an eternal feel, bright and breezy and serene, but a lot has changed in the last few weeks.

Florida has become epicenter for the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Older adults, many of whom spent much of the last year locked down and are at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, were just starting to exhale and return to a daily life where they could see their grandkids, travel and sip margaritas indoors.

While most of the state’s coronavirus cases appear to be among unvaccinated people, some vaccinated individuals are able to get infected with the highly contagious delta variant, which accounts for nearly all new cases in the country.

Vaccines are still highly effective in preventing severe illness, but more research is needed about the risk these “breakthrough infections” pose for older adults — 74 percent of the rare cases that have resulted in hospitalizations or death among vaccinated people have been in people 65 or older.

Many older adults in Tampa Bay feel conflicted — they’re nervous about what lies ahead, but they don’t want to sacrifice their hard-won return to normalcy.

From under a shady pavilion in Gulfport, Lorraine Brown, 65, is doing her daily Bible study.

“It’s scary,” said the St. Petersburg resident, who is fully vaccinated and has continued to mask up indoors. “You’ve got so many people that feel their rights are being invaded, and you have that choice [to not get vaccinated].

“But don’t jeopardize me,” she said. “It’s like smoking. A lot of smokers are respectful — they see you and they try to get away. So if you’re not vaccinated, stay your distance.”

It’s karaoke and Meals on Wheels lunch hour at the nearby Gulfport Senior Center. Only the staff members are wearing masks.

“We’ve got our shots already,” said Joseph King, 75, a Gulfport resident, over the sound of someone singing Barry Manilow’s Mandy.

He gestures to the front door. “You’ve only got to wear it when you’re outside — the danger is out there.”

Joseph King, 75, at the Gulfport Senior Center in Gulfport.
Joseph King, 75, at the Gulfport Senior Center in Gulfport. [ HANNAH CRITCHFIELD, HANNAH CRITCHFIELD | Times ]

Partners Tony Pisano, 71, and David Fry, 71, show their longtime friend Sue Alexander, 69, around the St. Pete Pier.

“We thought we were gonna get a break finally, and we’re not there yet,” Pisano said. “I also have a high risk, and I certainly don’t want some variant to come in here that’s gonna knock me out, even though I’ve been vaccinated.”

“And the longer any virus stays around, it keeps mutating,” Fry added.

The trio, who met decades ago and have each been vaccinated, said they’ve resumed wearing masks indoors, but aren’t going to put any plans on hold due to the variant.

“You can’t quit living just because of it,” Alexander said. “But you have to protect yourself — and others.”

Paul Wenger, 92, at his mobile home in St. Petersburg, Florida on July 29, 2021.
Paul Wenger, 92, at his mobile home in St. Petersburg, Florida on July 29, 2021. [ HANNAH CRITCHFIELD, HANNAH CRITCHFIELD | Times ]

Paul Wenger, who just celebrated his 92nd birthday, will live on too. He sits outside his house in Lake Shore Park, a 55-and-over mobile home community in St. Petersburg, sorting through mail from Jews for Jesus, Ann Coulter and the occasional hopeful scammer.

A widower, he keeps in touch with family across four generations of Wengers, but it’s a friend he met seven years ago at the neighborhood McDonalds that he sees most often.

“Him and I, both of us are windbags, you know?” Wenger, who is fully vaccinated, said. “But by golly, we communicate good. Last spring, when they shut our McDonalds up, he said, ‘Well, why don’t you come over my house watch some movies?’ I do that now about five times a week.”

It’s a kind of friendship, Wegner said, that’s worth a little risk.

Back at Gulfport beach, the sunbather, George Zemelka, 66, is frustrated by it all.

“This country’s a mess,” he said. “All the conflict that’s going on politically, there’s no unified objective.”

Zemelka said he had his reservations about the vaccine, but ultimately got it. His mother, who is homebound and 94, hasn’t.

He isn’t sure if he’ll mask up again — he believes COVID-19 is spreading more through migration into the United States at the southern border than a lack of masks, a claim touted by several Republican governors that lacks evidence but draws upon a long history of American leaders wrongly claiming migrants spread diseases.

Patricia Daniels, 46, said she decided to get the COVID-19 vaccine on her birthday on July 29, 2021.
Patricia Daniels, 46, said she decided to get the COVID-19 vaccine on her birthday on July 29, 2021. [ HANNAH CRITCHFIELD, HANNAH CRITCHFIELD | Times ]

Further down the coastline, Patricia Daniels celebrates her 46th birthday.

A St. Petersburg native, Daniels, who is currently experiencing homelessness, recently lost an older housemate and good friend to the virus.

“They were older, but they meant a lot to me,” she said.

She just decided to get vaccinated at Community Health Centers of Pinellas at Johnnie Ruth Clarke.

“At first, I didn’t wear the masks or anything,” Daniels said. “But I took it up with God. He speaks to me, and this morning he told me to get a COVID-19 shot. So I’m going to go do it.”