2021 BRINGS COVID VACCINES, MASK DEBATES, VARIANTS & SCHOOL CONCERNS

We had thought this all would be over, or that the end would be in sight. Remember when we all said good riddance to 2020, thinking it had been “the year of COVID,” the one and only year of COVID? 

Instead, by January 2021, our smartphones were predicting words like Pfizer, Moderna, even hydroxychloroquine. Who knew that the light we were seeing at the end of the tunnel was a train called Delta careening toward us? 

In 2020, masks were largely considered a protective measure. By 2021 they had become a political statement with the anti-vaccine movement soon to follow.

In September, the virus would claim the life of yet another devoted Florida Keys resident and representative in County Commissioner Mike Forster.

As we prepare to enter and embrace 2022, the Keys Weekly pored through our 2021 coverage of the COVID pandemic in the Florida Keys to bring you a month-by-month digest of COVID in the Keys, lest we forget where we’ve been and where we’re going.

JANUARY 

The Monroe County Health Department received its first 1,300 vaccine doses mainly for health care personnel. 

Monroe County received its first 1,300 doses of the Moderna vaccine on Jan. 5. Weekly file photo
  • Second round of stimulus checks are showing up
  • Publix gets vaccine doses
  • Frustration mounts over vaccine accessibility and online appointments 

FEBRUARY

By February, many parents were growing frustrated and wondering whether school buildings would reopen before summer. Vaccines were still being offered in phases. But eager anticipation was mounting, as the Keys prepared for a reliable supply of vaccine doses to reach the island chain. 

Also in February:

  • Nurses at College of the Florida Keys help with large-scale vaccine rollout
  • All Publix stores and 2 Winn-Dixies in the Keys get vaccine doses
  • COVID cases in Florida dropped by 55% the first two weeks of February

MARCH

March 20, 2021 marked the one-year anniversary of the announcement that closed Florida Keys hotels, bars and non-essential businesses. By then, the Florida Keys seemed to be holding their own against COVID. In Monroe County, elementary school students were back in the classroom full time, but students in sixth through 12th grade were still attending every other day on an A/B schedule, which frustrated many parents.

  • Third round of federal stimulus checks go out
  • State education commissioner orders Monroe County schools to reopen full time
  • Governor Ron DeSantis prohibits local COVID restrictions and cancels fines
  • Vaccines still limited to people 50 and older

APRIL

  • Vaccine eligibility opened to anyone 18 and older on April 5
  • Monroe County schools are open full-time for all students, with most attending in person while wearing masks. 
  • County libraries reopen.
  • Social distancing becomes problem for schools, quarantine rules increase absenteeism

MAY 

  • Governor ends mask mandates & local COVID restrictions 
  • Businesses respond differently to mask rules
  • Anti-vaccine sentiment increases
  • Monroe County Health Department stops issuing daily COVID case counts due to decrease

JUNE

  • Keys tourism flourishes as COVID counts drop

JULY

  • COVID creeps back due to Delta variant, but Keys hospitalizations remain low
  • Delta not yet a local concern 
  • Monroe County has third highest percentage of vaccinated people in Florida

AUGUST

August saw the hospitalization of County Commissioner Mike Forster due to COVID as the delta variant began to take its toll on the Keys and the country. 

  • Schools reopen and require masks, but offer opt-out
  • Mask debate divides parents and political parties
  • COVID cases increase for fifth consecutive week 
  • Delta variant brings masks back
  • County Commissioner Mike Forster is hospitalized with COVID
  • Masks are once again required in Monroe County and Key West government buildings 
  • KW reconsiders special events in light of COVID uptick
  • School board upholds mask opt-out

SEPTEMBER

County Commissioner Mike Forster lost his battle with COVID on Sept. 6, 2021. Weekly file photo

The Florida Keys mourned the loss of County Commissioner Mike Forster, who died of COVID on Sept. 6. The month also brought back event cancellations throughout the Keys. In Key West, city officials canceled the Goombay festival, the Royal Coronation, Zombie Bike Ride and Fantasy Fest parade and street fair.

  • Keys report 63 COVID deaths thus far
  •  Schools uphold mask opt-out after tense exchange 

OCTOBER

COVID cases again started to subside in October, and in-school infections were not a significant concern to Health Department Administrator Bob Eadie. The county commission once again canceled its mask mandate inside government buildings. 

NOVEMBER

By November, the Keys’ COVID case count was once again low, and vaccinations were high.

Health Department Administrator Bob Eadie told the county commissioners that COVID was likely to stay, and people have to learn to manage it and its risks.

DECEMBER

Enter Omicron, the latest coronavirus variant to raise its ugly, spiked head across the globe. While most fully vaccinated individuals remain protected from serious illness and death, the variant’s quick transmission remains a growing concern. 

On Dec. 29, the health department reported the community level of COVID transmission had returned to “high” for Monroe County with an average of 71 new daily cases over the last seven days with 13 hospital admissions that included adult and pediatric patients. 

“Omicron doesn’t seem to be as dangerous as Delta was, but it sure is contagious,” said Bob Eadie, Monroe County Health Department administrator. “You need to be aware of it and take precautions. If you’re not vaccinated you’re still at great risk for serious illness.”

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Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.