HENDRY COUNTY -- Hendry County is known for its superior fishing and boating recreations but a new development has attracted attention for all the wrong reasons.
Until very recently, the county held the dubious title of the hottest of the hot-spots for COVID-19 infections in the state of Florida, experiencing the highest positivity rate according to the Florida Department of Health.
“Hendry County had the highest positivity rate per 1,000 population of any county in the state, with the Florida Department of Health listing Hendry as a hot spot,” Hendry Regional Medical Center CEO R. D. Williams, said.
“This week’s report has most of the counties in Florida listed as hot spots.”
Williams pointed to the July 20 New York Times’ COVID Tracker showing 5,032 reported COVID cases and 87 deaths in Hendry County.
The cause, Williams believes, is the lackluster vaccination rate in the county which is one of the lowest in the state with less than 45 percent of people over the age of 12 vaccinated.
“Florida in general, and Hendry County specifically, have a lower vaccination rate than the median in the United States,” Williams said, adding that Florida now has one of the highest new COVID case rates in the country.
“There is a direct correlation between vaccination rates and the rates of new infections, hospitalizations, and deaths.”
Williams urges people to talk to their trusted family physicians about the vaccine, saying many who choose not to vaccinate have various reasons for doing so including a lack of trust in the vaccine development process along with significant misinformation about COVID and the vaccines promoted online.
“I would discourage folks from placing too much reliance on the opinions voiced by unknown individuals on the internet. There is a significant amount of false and misleading information currently on the internet which is hindering individuals from gaining the protections afforded by being vaccinated,” he said.
“This misinformation continues to spread widely and is one of the chief reasons cited by unvaccinated individuals as the basis for their refusal to be vaccinated.”
Hendry County also has a disproportionate number of minority and poor residents who, due to a lack of access to vaccinations, are not able to get them despite county health officials’ efforts setting up vaccine sites in those communities, he said.
Increased infections have led to more hospitalizations in the area, he said, especially since the delta variant has made its appearance.
Delta is far more contagious than the previous COVID mutations, although Williams pointed out it is not necessarily more dangerous. Its symptoms are similar to COVID-19 so anyone experiencing fever, chills, coughing and other flu-like symptoms should seek medical care. Emergency care should be sought if there is difficult breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion, discolored skin, lips or nail beds or an inability to wake or stay awake.
Like most hospitals in Florida, HRMC doesn’t have the genetic testing capability to pinpoint which COVID-19 strain a patient may have. That is done by Florida Department of Health on samples of positive patients. The good news is the existing treatments for COVID-19 appear to be effective against the Delta and other known variants of the virus.
As children under the age of 12 aren’t eligible for vaccination and seem to be susceptible to the highly contagious delta variant, so far HRMC has not seen a significant shift in positive tests for that segment of the population in the Emergency Department or in any of the clinics.
Williams urges parents to vaccinate themselves and older children to protect those too young or physically compromised to vaccinate, especially when it comes to the spread of the more contagious delta variant, and especially as school openings are approaching.
“For unvaccinated children, parents and students should follow the mitigation measures developed and implemented by the local school district,” Williams said.
“The school district has been working in conjunction with the health department to safely open and operate schools in our area.”
In addition to HRMC’s continued work with area healthcare providers, the local FDOH and county Emergency Operations Center, it has been aggressively promoting public information messages about the safety and effectiveness of the COVID vaccines.
The messages are in conjunction with those developed by national healthcare organizations featuring factual data to encourage people to consider vaccines to protect themselves and their families.
Combined with the low vaccination rate and minimal mitigation practices (social distancing, hand-washing, mask-wearing), the newest variant is suspected to be causing increased cases at area hospitals that are only starting to recover from months of non-stop care due to the pandemic.
To handle the hundreds of individuals infected with COVID-19 at the height of the pandemic, many which needed supportive therapy just to breathe and maintain bodily functions, Williams said Hendry Regional employees worked extra shifts to handle the sudden influx of infected patients.
While prepared for patient influxes on a routine basis, Williams said the duration of the COVID-19 influx pushed the hospital to its limit. Staffing levels, protective equipment for staff and increasing the number of isolation levels were modified to handle a never-ending stream of patients needing ICUs.
“HRMC staff while providing excellent care in a compassionate manner have been through a very difficult experience. It is extremely difficult to care for patients in isolations settings day in and day out,” he said. “The mental and physical wear and tear on staff members is significant.”
Significant community support during the pandemic’s initial stages, including donations of food, protective gear, gifts for staff helped boost morale. And while the volume of COVID patients is lower than previous peaks in 2020 and early 2021, the facility continues to treat COVID patients regularly.
“An increase in overall vaccination rates will be one of the most effective means of reducing the spread of serious COVID infections, hospitalizations, and death,” Williams said.