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With coronavirus surging, St. Petersburg considers mandating vaccines for employees

The city is exploring vaccine incentives, and council votes to reinstall plexiglass dividers in council chambers.
St. Petersburg City Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman proposed reinstalling plexiglass dividers among council members in the council chambers. The council ultimately voted 5-3 to reinstall the dividers
St. Petersburg City Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman proposed reinstalling plexiglass dividers among council members in the council chambers. The council ultimately voted 5-3 to reinstall the dividers [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Aug. 5

ST. PETERSBURG — After two months without a COVID-19 report, City Council on Thursday received a sobering report of the coronavirus’ resurgence and impact in St. Petersburg.

Hospitals are stressed. Ambulances are stretched thin. In the past week, 4,164 positive cases were reported — one of the highest figures since the pandemic hit in March 2020. The city is considering mandating vaccines for employees and may come to a decision by next week’s council meeting.

Division Chief Ian Womack said usually the fire department takes 10 people a year, usually trauma cases, to the hospital. That’s because Pinellas County contracts with Sunstar Paramedics to transport patients to the hospital. Fire rescue responds to a call, but Sunstar takes the patient to the hospital, freeing up fire rescue to respond to other calls.

But the pandemic has burned out many in the healthcare field. Hospitals, fire departments and ambulances are experiencing staffing shortages, which prevents them from operating at full capacity. That means Sunstar ambulances often get stuck at the hospital. Lockdown meant some nursing and paramedics training programs shut down, so fewer of those workers went into the workforce, Womack said.

Womack said fire rescue has had to take 300 people to the hospital in the past 10 days.

“Is that sustainable?” asked council chair Ed Montanari.

“No,” Womack said.

Florida now has 2.6 million COVID-19 cases, with an increase of 300,000 cases since the last COVID-19 update in early June. A majority of those 300,000 cases are the past 30 days.

Pinellas has 89,699 total cases as of Friday, and positivity rates are at 16.7 percent for the week. In June, it was down near 2 percent. Cases increased 55 percent this week over last week. Hospital admissions up 65 percent over prior week.

Fire Emergency Management Manager Amber Boulding said 58.8 percent of St. Petersburg residents 18 and over are fully vaccinated. She added that vaccinations are up 10 percent from June, and there are 4,600 vaccines being administered weekly.

Boulding said the Centers for Disease Control says Pinellas has a high level of transmission. So do 66 of Florida’s 67 counties.

Dr. Israel Wojnowich, who has been advising the city on COVID-19, stressed that morale is low after a quiet past few months.

“Covid is not going anywhere,” he said. “Today we have the delta variant, there will be others.”

Council member Amy Foster said she was dismayed at an estimate that 30 percent of St. Petersburg Fire Rescue’s 365 uniformed employees are vaccinated. She asked if the City of St. Petersburg was considering a mandatory vaccination policy.

Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin said the city is considering that but has not come to any finalized decision.

“We are talking about that daily and have said by next council meeting,” she said. “That’s kind of our deadline on changes we plan to make. We’ll be ready to talk about that comprehensively.”

The city is also considering vaccine incentives, like free parking. Council member Robert Blackmon said he proposed incentives like discount cards, free breakfast sandwiches and liquor shots for shots in May, but those never got traction in city hall.

Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman proposed reinstalling plexiglass dividers among council members in the council chambers.

“I am not comfortable sitting up here,” she said.

The council ultimately voted 5-3 to reinstall the dividers, with Montanari, Blackmon and vice chair Gina Driscoll voting no.

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