WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Palm Beach County's top health official hinted on Tuesday that the county's ongoing mask mandate may remain in place for a "long time."
The ordinance, which is in place until at least May 18, requires people to wear face coverings inside businesses, government buildings, "public places where social distancing in accordance with CDC guidelines is not possible or not being practiced," as well as Palm Tran transit services.
Speaking to county commissioners on Tuesday morning, Palm Beach County health director Dr. Alina Alonso said masks and the COVID-19 vaccine are the keys to stopping the spread of the deadly virus.
"What matters is how much virus is in the community. That's when we can take [masks] off. And it probably will not be for a long time," Alonso said.
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The health director added that we've had a "low flu season" with fewer cases than in years past, in part, because of the widespread use of facial coverings by the public.
"We have plenty of examples to show that the mask works, and that is something we need to keep in place," Alonso said, adding in her presentation that the county should "maintain the mask mandate as recommended by the CDC guidelines."
According to the latest numbers from the Florida Department of Health, 51% of new COVID-19 cases in Palm Beach County on April 18 were in the 15 to 44 age range, while 8% were among residents 65 and older.
Alonso said a major key to fighting COVID-19 is getting as much of the younger generation vaccinated as possible.
"Stopping COVID is really in their hands," Alonso said. "It is this group, most importantly, that needs to get vaccinated now that we've taken care of the seniors. We've taken care of the people that are gonna die. Now we gotta take care of the ones that are spreading the disease."
Alonso said medical professionals are finding more long-term effects of COVID-19 in younger people. Those impacts -- migraines, neurological issues, and organ problems -- are sometimes more severe and debilitating than the actual infection period.
"It's really definitely not just the flu. It has consequences, and it may have lifelong consequences," Alonso said.
Officials said they are beginning plans to transfer vaccinations away from county-operated sites and into more of the private sector, like pharmacies.
In addition, the county is planning to target the 15 to 44 age group with more vaccinations in colleges and universities, as well as communities consisting of minorities which are the hardest hit in terms of mortality and morbidity, according to Alonso.
Mayor Dave Kerner said the younger demographic appears to be more hesitant to get the vaccine, and he suggested opening walk-up vaccination pods at places like the South Florida Fair -- which is due to open on May 7 -- to make shots more accessible.
"I think we need to start looking at that right now," Kerner said. "Because the demographic that we're looking at are people that either are hesitant or just don't want to make the effort."
At a news conference last Thursday, Kerner said county officials will reevaluate the mask mandate several weeks from now to determine whether to extend it again, or repeal it outright.
"I do think, in my opinion, that there will be at some point in the near future, certainly not within the next 30 days, but at some point in the near future, we will repeal that mandate in this county," Kerner said.