COVID’s still here. So is the vaccine. | Editorial
Seniors especially need to get the new vaccines
CVS Health Pharmacy Manager Aylen Amestoy answers questions related to the newest COVID-19 vaccine shot for Sasan Sowlati, 71, at a CVS in Miami on Sept. 14, 2023.
CVS Health Pharmacy Manager Aylen Amestoy answers questions related to the newest COVID-19 vaccine shot for Sasan Sowlati, 71, at a CVS in Miami on Sept. 14, 2023. [ D.A. VARELA | Miami Herald ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jan. 31

COVID-19 still poses a risk, especially to Florida’s large senior population. So why ask for trouble by avoiding the vaccine? Getting the updated dose is quick and easy. Nursing homes in particular need to take the lead as deaths and infections from the virus continue to rise.

Mask mandates and other pandemic-era restrictions are long gone. But COVID-19 continues to spread across the region and Florida. While hospitalizations have not spiked to previous waves, the number of people admitted to Florida hospitals has increased. Statewide, more than 2,000 people with COVID-19 were admitted to hospitals during the week ending Jan. 13, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The 16-hospital BayCare Health System was treating about 150 virus patients in mid-January, officials reported — a spike of more than 300% from early December. While those totals don’t come close to earlier peaks, they represent real lives and real health care crises. They also reflect how people can better protect themselves by keeping updated on vaccines.

Federal health officials recommended new Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines in mid-September to better target virus variants. But roughly 85% of Florida adults are behind on their shots, according to the most recent federal estimates. While Florida’s nursing home residents are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19, as of Jan. 21 only 27% had gotten new vaccines tailored to combat virus variants. That figure has not only dropped in recent weeks, but it’s far below the share of nursing home residents nationwide (38%) that have received the updated shot. The same also holds true for nursing home staff; only 6% of nursing home workers in Florida have received the update, a figure that has dropped since the new vaccines became available, even as a greater share of nursing home workers nationwide have updated their shots.

These are worrisome trendlines. Fewer people getting inoculated means the virus has more opportunities to spread and cause severe illness. Nursing homes in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties have seen at least five COVID-19 deaths and over 700 cases among residents since federal health authorities recommended the latest shot, according to a recent Tampa Bay Times analysis. Florida has the fifth-lowest percentage of nursing home residents up to date with COVID shots in the U.S., according to federal data through the week ending Jan. 14.

It hasn’t helped that Gov. Ron DeSantis and his hand-picked state surgeon general have downplayed vaccines. But it’s been four years since the outbreak, and nobody at this stage should be waiting for responsible COVID leadership from Tallahassee. Floridians need to resist the politicization of COVID and pandemic fatigue, and realize the risks of infection are hardly rare or benign.

Nursing homes and senior communities especially need to be proactive in ensuring residents have ready, accurate information about the vaccines and access to updated shots. Residents in these communities typically congregate daily in communal dining and recreation halls, indoor settings that only heighten the risks of infection when inoculations are so lagging. Staff members at nursing homes also often hold down several jobs, opening the door to more viral contacts that employees could bring to these senior settings.

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Every death or illness is consequential. Floridians have the means to better protect themselves and a real self-interest in curbing more infections.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.