OKEECHOBEE – The new variant of the COVID-19 virus has been reported in Okeechobee County.
Local officials encourage the public to take advantage of vaccination opportunities, which are now open to anyone over the age of 18.
COVID-19 vaccinations in Okeechobee County are going well, according to the reports given by county and health department staff at the April 8 meeting of the Okeechobee County Commission.
“The vaccines are working,” said Interim Health Officer/Administrator for the Florida Department of Health in Okeechobee County Bret Smith. He said they saw an increase in positivity rate right after Spring break, but positivity rates are dropping again.
It’s important for as many people as possible to be vaccinated to help stop the spread of the virus, he said.
For the April 6 vaccination pod at the Okeechobee Agri-Civic Center, 500 first doses of the Moderna vaccine were available and 493 people were registered through the state appointment system. There some no shows. Through social media, calls and local media, health officials were able to get word out the remaining shots were available on a "first come" basis.
Smith said more vaccine pods are scheduled. First dose vaccination appointments can be made through the state website. For the second-dose vaccination pods, appointments are made by the county health department.
“We are doing everything we can to get it out there,” he said.
Six cases of the covid variant were reported for Okeechobee County over the past two weeks, Smith said. The variant, which is a slight mutation of the COVID-19 virus, is believed to be more contagious. The six cases were identified by blood work, he said. None of the six people diagnosed with the variant are currently hospitalized.
According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, preliminary data show that the COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the United States should provide an adequate degree of protection against SARS-CoV-2 variants.
Eight Okeechobee County residents are currently hospitalized related to COVID-19, according to the Agency for Health Care Administration. Since the pandemic began last year, 86 deaths in Okeechobee County were related to the virus.
Public Safety Director/Fire Chief Ralph Franklin said the next vaccination pod for first doses of the Moderna vaccine will be Tuesday, April 13, with 500 first doses. For appointments, sign up at myvaccine.fl.gov or call 866-201-1060.
He said they are planning a vaccination pod for Saturday, April 24 for those whose jobs keep them from going to a vaccination pod during the work week. Appointments for that pod will also be made through the state registration system. The county will have a backup plan in place in case the state system does not fill all of the appointments.
“We continue to get compliments on the efficiency of the pods,” said Commission Chair Terry Burroughs. People are happy that they are in and out of the vaccination pod very quickly, he said.
“On the appointment system, we do not get notification on the list until about 10:30 p.m. the night before the pod,” said Mitch Smeykal of the Emergency Operations Center. As soon as they know if extra doses are available for those without appointments, messaging will go out through local media and the county’s Facebook pages.
“People are watching for the communication,” said Burroughs.
Commissioner Kelly Owens noted all vaccination pods in the state are open to all Florida residents and the Okeechobee County pods have been open to anyone with proof of Florida residency. However, she has learned “apparently some counties close to us are denying people shots” if they are not from that county. Smeykal said he will bring up that issue on the state call.
Okeechobee County residents now have seven options for COVID-19 vaccinations:
• The Florida Department of Health in Okeechobee County. Go to myvaccine.fl.gov or call 866-201-1060 to make an appointment. (This includes appointments for the drive-thru vaccination pods at the Okeechobee Agri-Civic Center.)
• CVS Pharmacy in Okeechobee is administering COVID-19 Vaccine. Register for an appointment at https://www.cvs.com/vaccine/intake/store/covid-screener/covid-qns
• Publix Pharmacy in Okeechobee is administering COVID-19 Vaccine. Register for an appointment at https://www.publix.com/covid-vaccine/florida
• Walmart Pharmacy in Okeechobee is administering COVID-19 Vaccine. Register for an appointment at https://www.walmart.com/covidvaccine
• Florida Community Health Center in Okeechobee is administering both the Johnson & Johnson and Moderna COVID-19 vaccine by appointment only. Register for an appointment for the COVID-19 vaccine by calling 863-763-7481.
• Heartland Discount Pharmacy in Okeechobee is administering the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine by appointment at https://form.jotform.com/210896351116151
• Walgreens Pharmacy in Okeechobee is administering the Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccine by appointment only. Register for an appointment at https://www.walgreens.com/topic/promotion/covid-vaccine.jsp
In other business, Franklin said the April 2 food bank visit served 300 cars. The next food bank visit will be at the Okeechobee Music Festival grounds on April 9, and will serve the first 200 cars.