WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Calling it a "true battle," Palm Beach County's health director is expecting COVID-19 cases to continue climbing locally throughout the holiday season and into next year.
However, it'll likely be between April and June before the general public has access to a vaccine, according to Dr. Alina Alonso.
"We're gonna be in for some very tough months," Alonso told county commissioners on Tuesday. "For the next, I think, through December, especially January and then February."
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Alonso said the holiday season, an increase in seasonal residents traveling from COVID-19 hot spots to South Florida, large events and conventions, and club house parties will all contribute to more coronavirus cases in our area.
"It's inevitable that we're gonna have increasing numbers and higher positivity in the community," Dr. Alonso said.
According to the latest numbers from the Florida Department of Health, there are 69,331 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,731 coronavirus-related deaths in Palm Beach County.
Alonso said Palm Beach County has averaged 552 new COVID-19 cases per day from Nov. 30 to Dec. 6, with the majority of cases coming in the 14 to 44 age group.
However, Alonso said more new cases are creeping into the 55 to 64 age range, something she calls concerning.
"My concern is that, why? Because these are the people in the hospital. This is the age group that goes to the hospital," Alonso said.
To help combat the spread of COVID-19, Alonso said she's requesting 170 additional contact tracers from the state.
"I know everybody's tired and there's talk about fatigue," Dr. Alonso said. "There's no time for fatigue when you're doing a battle, and this is a true battle."
Alonso said it's more important than ever for residents to continue wearing masks, practicing social distancing, washing and sanitizing your hands frequently, and getting a flu shot.
With regard to a COVID-19 vaccine, Alonso said that once a vaccine is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it will be sent to South Florida in weekly shipments, and will go to health care workers and long-term care facilities first.
"Anybody who's a dispenser of vaccine now will eventually get it with the general population. I think it'll be April, June when that will be out to the general population," Alonso said.
The health director said that residents will need to get two doses of the vaccine, and after the second dose, it will take roughly 30 days or four weeks to acquire immunity.
Alonso added that she anticipates that eventually, when the vaccine is available to the general public in Palm Beach County, it will be distributed by doctor's offices, pharmacies, mobile vaccination units, and at mass vaccinations sites, similar to large-scale COVID-19 testing sites that are currently operating throughout the county.
"In my mind, what I see would be a line for testing and a line for vaccination for the general population," Alonso said.
Earlier during Tuesday's county commission meeting, Dr. Kenneth Scheppke, the emergency medical services director for the Florida Department of Health, said it's unclear if the COVID-19 vaccine will be an annual vaccine like the flu shot.
Scheppke said immunity should last a few years, but health officials don't know for sure.
"That's a question that we just don't have the answer to yet," Scheppke said. "We're gonna have to wait to see how long immunity lasts. Most experts believe it's going to last at least a couple of years, maybe longer."