Baby steps taken as COVID-19 cases continue to rise
By LINDA CHION KENNEY
As the nation’s early rollout of COVID-19 vaccines continues, with demand far outpacing supply, Hillsborough County school officials have been advocating for employees in critical roles to get their vaccination shots as the number of cases continues to rise.
The first breakthrough came earlier this month when school officials, in partnership with Tampa General Hospital and the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County, announced a two-day targeted vaccine drive for school district workers ages 65 and older.
The program provided drop-in-the-bucket relief to at least some of the district’s most vulnerable employees, including teachers, administrators, bus drivers, custodians and lunchroom workers. The school district is the County’s largest employer, with more than 25,000 full-time workers on its rolls.
“Rest assured that I will continue to advocate for all [pre-kindergarten through grade 12] educators to be prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine,” said Hillsborough schools superintenden, Addison Davis, in a Jan. 20 news release. “Educators continue to take on critical roles in our community, and it is imperative teachers, administrators and school-based support staff are protected.”
Meanwhile, the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners at its Jan. 21 meeting received an update on COVID-19 numbers and concerns and voted to tweak the mask mandate to “strongly encourage” patrons be seated while served in the outdoor areas of bars and restaurants.
Commissioner Kimberly Overman provided the “heavy lifting” research and remarks on this issue, as noted by her peer, Commissioner Mariella Smith, but it was not enough to secure tougher language on the issue.
The mandate that face coverings must be worn in indoor locations of businesses, with certain exceptions, remains in effect.
Commissioners also discussed at the board meeting the high demand for vaccinations as well as the sobering reality that demand far outpaces demand. County officials agreed with the assessment that given Hillsborough’s population of 1.2 million people, not including children, it would take 750 days before everybody in the County could be vaccinated, if 1,600 vaccines were administered seven days a week.
“We’re all hampered by the lack of supply,” said Assistant County Manager George Horwedel, who added that he is confident supplies, nevertheless, will increase.
Commissioner Smith referred to a report that she identified as coming the week before the Jan. 21 board meeting, from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, led by former Vice President Mike Pence. According to Smith, the document said Florida is facing surging cases and deaths and a situation set to overwhelm hospitals, concluding that, “aggressive mitigation must be used to match the more aggressive virus.”
As of Jan. 26, the Hillsborough County COVID-19 dashboard showed the County had 97,288 cases and 1,206 deaths, with a testing positivity rate of 11.85 percent, per the 14-day rolling average ending Jan. 17.
The Hillsborough County school district also has a COVID-19 dashboard, which has been keeping track of confirmed cases in schools and district offices as of July 31. This does not include another 284 cases reported March 20 through July 30.
Overall, Hillsborough, since July 31 and through 10:30 a.m. Jan. 26, reported 4,182 cases for students and employees. Employees accounted for 1,516 cases, or 36.3 percent of the total. Students across all levels of schooling accounted for roughly six in 10 cases. Employees classified as district staff accounted for 142 cases, or 9.4 percent of the adult cases reported. The number of cases for employees and students combined increased 1,707 from the last day of classes before winter break (Dec. 18) through 10:30 a.m. Jan. 11.
Hillsborough’s 28 traditional high schools accounted for 1,109 cases, or 41.6 percent of the 2,666 student COVID-19 cases reported as of 10:30 a.m. Jan 26. In turn, eight high schools — Plant (111 cases), Newsome (85), Steinbrenner (85), Alonso (71), Sumner (68), Sickles (66), Durant (57) and Plant City (57) — accounted for 600 cases, or 54 percent of the high school student total.
Rounding out the high schools in south Hillsborough County are Riverview (43 cases), East Bay (30 cases), Spoto (25 cases) and Lennard (14 cases). The only high schools with fewer cases than Lennard were Middleton (7), Tampa Bay Tech (12) and Wharton (13).
These numbers do not include charter schools serving the high school grades.