Hospital CEO offers update on COVID response

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If a COVID-19 vaccine by Johnson & Johnson performs well in clinical trials and wins FDA approval, there will be a new weapon in the arsenal to battle the pandemic.

“In February, we expect to get emergency use authorization for J&J’s (vaccine) in what I think is going to be a game-changer, because it’s one shot; it doesn’t require a regimen of two,” said Flagler Health+ President and CEO Jason Barrett.

Barrett spoke about the issue during a Jan. 11 virtual meeting of the St. Johns County Civic Roundtable.

Currently available vaccines require patients to return for a follow-up inoculation.

But a greater challenge to getting people vaccinated is the limitations of the supply chain. St. Johns County has received three disbursements since the end of December, a total of 4,300 doses. Appointments to receive the vaccine were filled very quickly; the last round, which opened Jan. 14, was filled within the first hour of availability.

At this time, vaccines are reserved for healthcare personnel with direct patient contact, long-term care facility residents and staff, people over 65 years of age and those deemed by hospital providers to be extremely vulnerable to COVID-19. 

Ultimately, as vaccines become available, they may be offered to the general populace.

Barrett said Flagler Health+ is in close coordination with the state Department of Health and Florida Surgeon General Scott A. Rivkees. In speaking with the governor’s office, Barrett said the local hospital was willing to serve as a mass-vaccination site.

“We can mobilize, and we can provide the mass vaccinations once we have the distribution,” he said.

He said the hospital is equipped to handle both brands of vaccine currently available. The Pfizer vaccine requires special refrigeration at -70 degrees. The Moderna vaccine requires only standard refrigeration.

In the meantime, health officials are learning how better to meet the challenges posed by the coronavirus.

“We are very much more knowledgeable of how to treat these patients in a way we didn’t before,” Barrett said.

Fewer are ending up on ventilators, with other strategies replacing them.

Florida has had the third highest number of cases among the states. At the beginning of the outbreak, the Sunshine State fell far behind states like New York and California in the number of cases. But beginning with a spike in July, that was no longer the case.

“At the beginning of March, we had an average of probably three patients with COVID,” Barrett said. “Today, we’re averaging somewhere between 30 and 40.”

Soon after the outbreak, Flagler Hospital served as the county’s community testing site. To date, it has performed more than 23,000 tests.

As of Monday, Jan. 18, 16,673 total cases – 140 fatal – had been reported in St. Johns County. In the St. Johns County portion of the 32081 ZIP code, 1,239 cases had been reported. In the 32082 ZIP code, 2,068 cases had been reported.

For further information, go to sjcfl.us/coronavirusvaccinations. Residents may also call the St. Johns County COVID-19 Vaccination Hotline at 904-295-3711 – all 10 digits must be dialed.

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