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Our Town with William Kelly: Delta variant a game-changer for Covid pandemic – even in Palm Beach, where most residents are vaccinated

As recently as June, it appeared that Covid-19 no longer posed a serious threat. But with the highly contagious Delta variant surging, and roughly half of the U.S. population still not fully vaccinated, Fire-Rescue Chief Darrel Donatto’s report to the Town Council on Tuesday could only be described as grim.

The testing positivity rate in Palm Beach County has ballooned to 17 percent – up from 2.3 percent in June and the highest it has been since the start of the pandemic, Donatto said.

Within the 33480 zip code, which includes Palm Beach and South Palm Beach, there were 25 new cases for the week that ended Aug. 5. That contrasts sharply with early June, when new cases had fallen to less than one per week.

“We are seeing this huge increase with a [county] population that has been vaccinated in the 60 percent range,” Donatto said.

Area hospitals are being pushed toward their limits, he said. Occupancy rates at Good Samaritan and St. Mary’s medical centers are reportedly above 90 percent.

“Our rescuers are facing delays at [these] hospitals because they don’t have enough available beds to put patients in,” he said.

With a much larger viral load than the original Covid-19 virus, the Delta variant can cause much more serious illness, he said. It is also far more transmissible.

Social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing remain very important practices because even those who are vaccinated can be infected by the Delta variant and pass it on to others.

But vaccination is the only protection against serious illness, hospitalization or death. Some of those who’ve been vaccinated and become infected are getting sick and having to quarantine at home but “we are seeing very few hospitalizations of people who have been vaccinated,” Donatto said.

The vaccination rate within the town is very high (an exact figure was not available), he said. But people who haven’t been vaccinated are coming into Palm Beach, posing a potential threat to others, each day.

“We tragically have lost 15 people in this community,” Donatto said. “That is 15 too many. I think we will see more people succumb to this disease.”

The root of the problem is global. The percentage of the worldwide population that is vaccinated remains around 15 percent. As the virus mutates, more dangerous variants will continue to develop and spread, he said.

“The Delta variant started with one person infected in India,” Donatto said. “Now it is the dominant strain in Palm Beach County and the United States.”

Donatto said he’s hearing from experts who don’t think we are near the end of the pandemic. “We are probably still in the early stages of it, because so many people are not vaccinated.”

Children younger than 12 years old are especially vulnerable because they are ineligible for vaccination, Council President Margaret Zeidman said. She welcomed the Palm Beach County School District’s recent decision to impose a mask mandate in defiance of an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Councilman Lew Crampton asked if the town administration is mandating vaccinations for town employees.

“I’m flummoxed that people think getting vaccinated is all about them,” Crampton said. “It’s about all of us. We need at least 70 percent to be vaccinated to even approach herd immunity. We are still about 8 to 10 percent short.”

There is no such mandate for the employees as yet, Town Manager Kirk Blouin said. But, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on the verge of approving a Covid-19 vaccine, that could soon change.

“Once a vaccine is approved, we will possibly be mandating vaccination or requiring [employees who aren’t vaccinated] to provide proof that they are Covid negative after [returning to work from] vacation or days off,” Blouin said.

The town months ago launched an incentive program through which vaccinated employees received $50 gift cards and were entered into a raffle for larger prizes, he said.

Employees who aren’t vaccinated and get infected with Covid are not eligible for Emergency Paid Sick Leave, Blouin said.

Dr. Alina Alonso, director of the Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County, is scheduled to speak to employees and answer their questions about Covid vaccinations, he said.

The entire executive management team is vaccinated, as are most supervisors, Blouin said. But there remains some resistance in the ranks.

Some young employees are afraid that, if they are vaccinated, they won’t be able to reproduce, he said. Others fear they will get a microchip inserted into their bodies.

“They should seek the advice of their doctors,” Blouin said. “You’re not going to find one family physician that’s going to tell them not to get the vaccine.”

Employees are required to wear masks inside town buildings, and when interacting with the public, whether they are vaccinated or not.

Donatto said he’s seen more employees step forward to be vaccinated within the last few days. “Some of our Fire-rescue employees are seeing [non-vaccinated] co-workers hospitalized, while those who have been vaccinated stay healthy,” he said.