St. Lucie County’s decision comes amidst rising pediatric cases and first Treasure Coast teacher deaths

FORT PIERCE ― St. Lucie County held its first weekly COVID-19 update since the second week of April amidst a backdrop of soaring positivity rates, school district rebellion against the governor’s prohibition on mandatory masks and the first reported teacher deaths on the Treasure Coast.

Emergency Management Director Ron Parrish relaunched the updates Aug. 24, just five days after Indian River County teacher Tabitha Blair, 42, succumbed to the coronavirus. The Treasure Coast Elementary School teacher contracted it over the summer break.

“Community transmission of COVID-19 remains very high in St. Lucie County, with a daily positivity rate ranging from 21 percent to 43 percent the past week,” he said. “This is primarily due to the highly contagious Delta Variant. Hospitals in St. Lucie County have been reducing visitations, surgeries are being postponed, beds are filling up with COVID patients and more than 90 percent of those being hospitalized with COVID symptoms are unvaccinated people.”

In order to help slow the spread of the virus locally, Mr. Parrish urged those with symptoms to get tested and stay home until they feel better. To facilitate additional COVID-19 testing, St. Lucie County opened up a testing site at the Gwenda Thompson Trades Career Center in Fort Pierce in collaboration with Allied Health. In addition, the State of Florida has inaugurated an alternative treatment site for positively diagnosed patients with non-life-threatening symptoms.

“The testing site will operate seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sunday,” he explained. “No appointments are necessary [and] the testing is free. For persons with health insurance, Allied Health will bill the insurance company and not charge a copay. For those that test positive or have underlying health risks, the Florida Department of Emergency Management has opened a monoclonal-antibody infusion treatment center at the Havert L. Fenton Center in Fort Pierce. This facility will operate from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and is able to serve more than 300 patients per day.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis actually held a news conference the day prior in Fort Pierce to announce the opening of the REGEN-COV treatment at 3855 S. U.S. Highway 1. Gov. DeSantis has been traveling the state the last the couple weeks announcing the opening of a handful of such centers that employ the monoclonal antibody treatment manufactured by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. 

“This state-run monoclonal-antibody therapy treatment center site is for patients diagnosed with COVID-19 or are considered high-risk if infected,” Mr. Parrish added. “Walk-ins are welcome, but appointments are encouraged and can be made at patientportalfl.com. The administered antibodies help the immune system recognize and respond effectively to the virus. According to treatment guidelines, they should be administered as soon as possible after the diagnosis of COVID. Monoclonal-antibody treatments can be prescribed by healthcare providers to individuals 12 years of age and older who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 and are at high risk for severe illness.”

As in the updates held during the earlier part of this year, Mr. Parrish continues to encourage St. Lucie County residents to follow the safety measures set by the Center for Disease Control and the Florida Department of Health.

“We urge everyone to get vaccinated, practice social distancing when you can, wear a facial covering when you can’t social distance and wash your hands,” he said. “If you are sick, please stay home. Call your doctor and get a COVID-19 test. Today, roughly 55 percent of St. Lucie County residents are fully vaccinated. While there have been incidences of breakthrough cases where vaccinated people have contracted COVID, the vaccine remains your best defense.”

Florida Department of Health of St. Lucie County Administrator Clint Sperber concurred, recalling how in the first days of the pandemic he anxiously looked forward to the day a COVID-19 vaccine would exist and be readily available. Now he hopes the more hesitant residents will be willing to get the Pfizer vaccine since the Food & Drug Administration decision changed its status Aug. 23 from emergency authorization to fully approved.

“We’re not where we need to be at this stage,” he said. “We have been speaking to a lot of people who had a reason for not being vaccinated, and [that] it was only an emergency use authorization seemed to rise to the top of the list. Now that we have full approval from the FDA, we are hopeful our numbers will continue to increase. From a Department of Health perspective, vaccination is how we will get out of this pandemic.”

Mr. Sperber also provided the latest COVID-19 case numbers, which for him confirms the effectiveness of the vaccine among older county residents while revealing a startling positivity trend among children, many of whom are too young to be vaccinated.

“Over the last seven days we’ve averaged over 300 cases a day – that’s never happened before,” he explained. “Our largest case count is in five-to-14-year-old kids, and approximately 98 percent of our cases are in unvaccinated people. What does that tell us? The vaccine is effective. There are breakthrough cases – not many – but we expect that with any type of vaccine.”

Mr. Sperber hopes the opening of the Fort Pierce monoclonal antibody treatment site will take pressure off area hospitals by enabling the less severe coronavirus cases among high-risk patients to be treated in an out-patient setting.

“This absolutely will help,” he said. “There’s a lot of capacity at this location. It is a state site available for anyone across Florida, but having it in our own backyard can definitely be a gamechanger. In clinical trials, they say these types of treatments could reduce infection, hospitalization and death by over 70 percent, which is huge.”

Mr. Sperber ended his presentation by repeating the same mantra he’s employed over the last year.

“Quarantine yourself, try to limit the spread, don’t pass the virus onto others,” he urged.

Mr. Parrish subsequently closed out the latest COVID-19 update with his continued plea for the unvaccinated to get vaccinated.

“Please let’s be vigilant in trying to protect each other and ourselves and make sure we’re following the guidelines that have been provided, and please get vaccinated,” he said. “We are not out of harm’s way from this pandemic. Please, help us slow the spread.”

On the same day of the meeting, the majority of the Indian River County School Board voted to make face coverings mandatory for students through the eighth grade. Two days later, Fellsmere Elementary School Teacher Sarah Zevallos died of COVID-19 after barely beginning the school year. The same day, the Indian River District shuttered Beachland Elementary School until after Labor Day due to a rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak.

On Aug. 27, Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper struct down Gov. DeSantis emergency order prohibiting school mask mandates. The governor’s communications director said the administration would appeal the ruling to the First District Court of Appeals. As of Aug. 30, the St. Lucie Schools COVID-19 Dashboard listed 408 students and 140 staff positive for the virus.

For more information on St. Lucie County testing sites or the monoclonal-antibody infusion treatment center, call (772) 462-1705 or visit the website at www.recoverstlucie.org. The next COVID-19 update is scheduled for 11 a.m. Sept. 3 and will be available for viewing on the county’s website afterward.

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