Health officials growing concerned over COVID-19 case spikes in the U.S. are blaming a delta variant and a population of citizens who haven’t received a vaccine. No local policy changes are expected despite an uptick in new cases in Monroe County — doing so would take some serious justification to the state of Florida. 

And while local officials are monitoring the situation, they say there is no urgent concern.

The Centers for Disease Control updated its guidelines on July 27 in lieu of the delta variant and surging cases nationwide. The CDC said people fully vaccinated can participate in many activities as they did before the pandemic. However, in areas where transmission and positive cases are rising, the CDC urges people — even those vaccinated — to wear a mask when indoors in public. 

“As of (July 23), there were zero cases of the delta variant in Monroe County, according to a report from Shannon Weiner, our emergency manager,” said Monroe County Mayor Michelle Coldiron. 

A weekly report by the Florida Health Department showed new daily state cases on the downward trend in early June — 18,409 on June 5 to 10,459 on June 11. By July 16, however, that number ticked to nearly 73,200. New positive cases went from 3.3% on June 11 to 15.1% on July 16. 

A feature on the CDC website allows users to watch the recent spike of COVID-19 spill throughout Florida. Miami-Dade County turned “red” — or highest level of community transmission — on July 4. By July 11, Monroe County had the same status. By July 25, the entire state was categorized as high level.

Data from the CDC shows the fall and now rise of new COVID-19 cases in the Florida Keys. In April, the Keys were averaging between 12 and 21 new cases a day. By May, those numbers had fallen to between 1 and 10 new cases a day. In June, fewer than six cases a day were reported in the Keys. In July, the numbers began to climb again. The most recent accounting reveals an average of 13 new cases a day.

Bob Eadie, top health officer in the Keys, said while there is “a great deal of transmission” in Florida and the U.S., hospitalizations locally are low. Eadie said the delta variant seems to be more communicable with symptoms a little worse. 

“The good thing is the vaccines are effective in preventing serious illness, hospitalization or death, regardless of which variant it is,” he said. 

Lower Keys Medical Center remains in green status, with sufficient staffing, equipment and supplies, said CEO David Clay. The hospital was treating four COVID patients as of July 27. 

“We have seen an increase in patients presenting to the ER with cold and flu symptoms. Age ranges remain consistent,” he said. “Precautions and protocols continue as they have been throughout the pandemic and we remain committed to safely caring for our community. “

Right now, Monroe County has the third highest percentage of vaccinated residents, behind only Sumter County which includes The Villages, and Miami-Dade County. More than 99% of Keys seniors, ages 65 years old and up, have received at least one vaccine.  

“Only 25 percent of 12- to 19-year-olds have been vaccinated in the Keys,” according to a local health department spokesperson. 

Terri Axford, the Monroe County School District superintendent, said there were no COVID-19 cases reported during either summer school session. On July 27, the school district met with the health department to talk about the start of the school year in about two weeks for a “regular year” of in-person instruction.

“Well, things are changing by the minute still. But for now, we’re just saying that masks are optional, but highly recommended, particularly for unvaccinated students and teachers,” said Axford, adding that the district is following the recommendations of local, state and federal governments. “Parents should be aware of the current situation and transmission rate in our county and make good decisions as it relates to their kids.”

Axford said that students who are exposed to a COVID-19 case, if they are unvaccinated and unmasked, will have to quarantine. The district will continue to encourage hand-washing and discourage crowding in hallways or common areas. Axford also noted that the second half of the past school year (when instruction was offered in-person) saw an infection rate of students and teachers that was less than 3%. 

Vaccine demand in the Keys has precipitously decreased. Nearly 400 residents were vaccinated between July 16 and July 22, and that brings the total number vaccinated to 47,392 out of roughly 75,000 in the county. 

Recent data shows a number of younger residents in the state going for a COVID-19 vaccine. In the week of July 16-22, more than 57,000 Florida residents 29 and younger and just over 52,600 between the ages of 30 and 49 received a COVID-19 vaccine. Around 8,800 residents ages 60-64 received a vaccine, while nearly 13,400 in the 65-and-up age range were administered vaccines. 

“People are still getting vaccinated and it’s still available all over the Keys,” Eadie said. “Some are changing their minds and getting vaccinated, and that’s a good sign too.”

Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said in a recent interview with “State of the Union”  that the U.S. is going in the wrong direction with increasing cases, which he says are fueled by unvaccinated Americans and the delta variant. Talks over changes to the mask policy have occurred.

Eadie said social distancing and mask requirements might go into place in certain parts of the U.S., but it won’t likely be seen in the Keys. 

“I don’t think you’ll see an outbreak like we’ve seen earlier — part of that is because so many people have gotten vaccinated,” Eadie said. I don’t know if we’re going to see numbers that you see in New York or Miami. And our hospitals are in good shape. If you get vaccinated, then the questions go away.”

Any policy changes at a local level in relation to pandemics and public health emergencies would need some serious justification, per an executive order signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in early May. Ordinances or measures depriving a person of a right, liberty or property requires a governmental entity to prove that the measure is “narrowly tailored” and serves a “compelling governmental interest” through the “least intrusive means.” It also authorizes the governor or legislature to invalidate a city or county measure that “unnecessarily restricts a constitutional right, fundamental liberty or statutory right.”

DeSantis cited the vaccines’ effectiveness for the order that ended local mandates, such as the one in Monroe County that required masks when entering inside public places. 

Monroe County Mayor Michelle Coldiron said constituents have been silent on the rising cases in Florida. “I haven’t really heard from them, no. I think Monroe County is in a great place. My concern is for those that haven’t been vaccinated, especially if they are in the service industry,” she said. “I think it’s important to continue to wash our hands and stay home if you don’t feel well.”

Coldiron also noted the strong continuation of public-private partnerships to offer free vaccinations for Monroe County residents. 

“You can get them at Publix, Winn-Dixie …” she said.

Regardless of where someone is vaccinated, masks are still required when flying or on public transportation, per current guidance by the CDC.

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Jim McCarthy believes in community reporting, giving back and life on the water. A workout fanatic, diver and a bogey-golfer, Jim loves chicken wings, Marvel movies and sports.