Dear Campus Community,
Since my last message, a lot has happened. As has been the case with everything related to COVID-19, new developments and information updates come fast, so here is the quick rundown on the latest:
- The number of new cases of COVID-19 continues to decline across the country, including in Florida. New cases are down over 30% in most jurisdictions in the U.S.
- Hospitalizations peaked about three weeks ago but are now falling quickly, with an over 65% drop in the number of COVID-19 patients admitted at UF Health.
- On campus, we had a 50% drop in cases from the holidays but some of that reduction was lost by an increase in cases among students over the last week. The increase is driven by unmasked indoor large and small social gatherings centered on eating and drinking in the community.
- We all need to stay the course and continue to mask up, stay physically distanced and avoid indoor, unmasked activities with people outside of your immediate quarantine group. It really matters.
- Testing has never been higher. We tested as many people on campus in January as we did all the months of the fall semester combined: a total of over 50,000. Our positivity rate increased slightly last week but as of the time of this writing, our 7-day average positivity rate is 1.9%, with yesterday’s positivity rate at 1.6%.
On the technical side, we had some challenges with the electronic clearing process, as many of you know. Please accept my apologies for those of you who were inconvenienced. The IT teams across campus worked diligently and through the night a few times to fix the bugs. I am so thankful for their efforts and professionalism.
Vaccines and Vaccinations
We are in the midst of the second month since vaccines first became available, and it seems that there is still much uncertainty about them. However, it is important to remember that uncertainty is not the same thing as bad news.
In fact, we got some more good news about vaccines with the release of Johnson & Johnson’s data on their single-dose vaccine. The J&J vaccine was reported to be 66% effective, and the company is expected to be given authorization to release the vaccine in the coming weeks, with Astra Zeneca and Novavax expecting results soon as well.
It’s important to remember that we shouldn’t focus on subtle differences in vaccine efficacy. So far, all the vaccines studied have shown the most important outcome: No one in the studies who received any of the vaccines died of COVID-19. That is remarkable.
The efficacy of 66% or 95% refers to whether someone develops any symptoms of COVID-19. What we all care about is reduction of serious illness and death, and this is where all the candidates seem to excel. It is hard to argue that the news at this time is not just good; it is very good and promises an end to the pandemic in the coming months.
Right now, our hands are still tied by limited production capacity and distribution issues at the state and federal levels. There are signs these are improving and that increasing amount of vaccine will eventually be available.
Vaccine allocation and distribution are managed at the state level, so our ability to offer vaccines is dependent upon the number and timing of doses received. Our supply of the vaccines is constantly monitored; we are taking a phased approach and plan to broaden eligibility when we are able.
It’s important to remember that current guidelines require us to focus on those over 65, a select group under 65 with risk factors for severe illness from COVID-19, and front-line health care workers. This is because these are the highest-risk individuals and need to be the initial focus.
In the meantime, UF Health has vaccinated more than 36,600 individuals across our three health campuses in Gainesville, Jacksonville and Central Florida, about 23,000 of whom are in Alachua County.
The Florida Department of Health in Alachua County is also very active and focused on vaccinating the community at large. Alachua County leads the state in per capita vaccinations, with more than 10% of county residents having been vaccinated.
Through a collaboration that started at the beginning of the pandemic when UF Health Screen, Test & Protect was created, we are working with local health department officials to build capacity so that when more vaccine is available, we can vaccinate thousands quickly throughout the community, including others on campus and those who may be vaccine-hesitant because of historic distrust of health care systems.
Over the past three weeks, we have worked to help support four different Department of Health vaccine clinics at the Hull Road test site as well as at Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church on the east side of town.
An extension of that collaboration is coming this Friday, Feb. 5, when we will pilot a health department-led community vaccination event at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. This is an appointment-only event, as all of the county’s vaccine clinics are, and will focus on people 65 and older who have already signed up through the health department’s website.
Other events are planned, including additional drive-thru clinics at Hull Road, community organizer vaccine events throughout the community and vaccination opportunities at the stadium. In addition, retail pharmacies will be receiving doses directly from the federal government to create yet another way in which people will soon be able to get vaccinated.
Please visit the Vaccination page on the UF Health Coronavirus website to hear directly from health experts who answer many of the questions our patients and community have regarding the safety and availability of COVID-19 vaccines.
With each passing day we get closer to the end of the pandemic. We still need to stay focused on the things we know work to reduce spread and protect the vulnerable though. That means Super Bowl parties need to be small and outdoors, or we risk seeing another surge.
Vaccine access improves with each day, but the emergence of variants and the fatigue after nearly a year of unprecedented communal sacrifice presents challenges. We feel the frustration and understand the toll this takes, especially on those of you who have risk factors or otherwise perceive yourself at risk. Please know that we are working harder than ever to be ready to help protect everyone we can once more vaccine is available.
Together we will get through this.
Michael Lauzardo, MD, MSc
Director, UF Health Screen, Test & Protect
Deputy Director, Emerging Pathogens Institute
Associate Professor, Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine
UF College of Medicine