As the Delta variant gripped Florida this summer, Latinos and younger adults saw what was happening, and they jumped to get vaccinated. That finding, by The South Florida Sun Sentinel, shows what happens when people are armed with the facts and equipped to make informed medical decisions. And it’s another lesson of how state government has put Floridians at risk by withholding key COVID-19 data.
The Sun Sentinel discovered the trend after analyzing newly-released data that it has to pry out of the state. Two of the groups most hesitant to be vaccinated — 25-to-44 year-olds and the Latino population — led the state in new vaccinations as the delta variant swept Florida. The newspaper found the trend became especially apparent in South Florida, as younger people and minorities sought vaccinations at higher rates than the state as a whole.
Many of those getting shots were vaccine holdouts shaken by seeing friends and family get sick and die. As hospitals filled up, and as the daily death counts continued to climb, a push began in July that saw nearly 3 million people getting inoculated amid the delta wave. Across South Florida, Latinos were getting shots at two or three times the level of whites. Younger adults were getting their first doses at four or five times the levels of those 65 and older. Public fears over the highly contagious variant shocked a state that had grown complacent. “It requires continuous education,” said Sama Fombu, a family nurse practitioner in Miramar. “I talk to people at grocery stores and gas stations ... wherever I can.”
As inoculations in Florida trend downward, the summer experience is a cautionary tale about downplaying the pandemic and hiding the numbers. As the Sun Sentinel detailed, Florida’s vaccine rollout tapered off after the initial clamor for vaccines in January and February; by June, Gov. Ron DeSantis had all but stopped events to promote the vaccines, and by the first week of July, Florida’s vaccination rate plunged to its lowest level since the vaccines became available. And while vaccinations in Florida lagged the national average, the state dropped further into complacency as delta began to spread.
The lesson is that COVID still poses a formidable risk to Florida given that nearly seven million people here ages 5 and up remain unvaccinated, with children and young adults remaining the least-vaccinated age groups. Last week, fewer than 48,000 first doses were administered, compared with more than 216,000 in late August, reflecting the intransigence of many Floridians to join the vaccinated.
The Sun Sentinel also exposed how Florida’s restrictions on the release of COVID-related data have undermined the fight. The newspaper obtained the data as the result of a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Health, which announced in June it would no longer release detailed, daily COVID reports. Those records were instrumental in tracking trends in real time, giving local policymakers a snapshot of conditions in their communities and a valuable tool for managing the outbreak. Imagine how many more holdouts might have gotten the jab earlier had the state continued to release the detailed reports, enabling the government to marshal its resources and target its public messaging campaigns.
Still, the Sun Sentinel’s report is valuable given that the pandemic is still here. It should build pressure on the DeSantis administration to release more relevant COVID data. And it underscores the need to be prepared for the next public health crises.
— Tampa Bay Times