Covid-19 Update

Do Sarasota and Manatee Counties Track Coronavirus Variants?

After two Covid-19 deaths in Manatee County, we wondered if health officials traced it to the delta variant, which is 60 percent more contagious than the original strain.

By Allison Forsyth June 24, 2021

A recent outbreak of Covid-19 cases in the Manatee County Administration Building is raising concern over whether the highly contagious delta variant is present in Sarasota-Manatee. Six cases have been reported in the building, and five employees have been hospitalized. Two have died. Five of the cases occurred in the building's IT department.

Whether the delta variant or another strain of the virus caused this recent outbreak remains unknown. The newest positive case, reported on June 23, occurred shortly after the employee's first round of Covid-19 vaccination (emphasizing the importance of taking precaution until fully inoculated). The other individuals in this outbreak were not vaccinated. Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes also noted these recent cases involved more severe symptoms than that of the original strain, the alpha variant, which has accounted for more than half of Covid-19 cases in the United States.

The new delta variant, which has raised concern at the CDC and the Florida Department of Health, originated in India in December 2020. The variant is now the dominant strain in Britain and has made its way to the U.S. and the state of Florida. The variant is known to be 60 percent more transmissible than the original strain due to its ability to attach to human cells more easily. Experts like Dr. Manuel Gordillo, an infectious disease specialist at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, say it is highly contagious to unvaccinated people.

According to CDC data, the delta variant accounted for 9.5 percent of national cases and 2.3 percent of Florida cases in the two week period leading up to Saturday, June 5. Recent CDC data shows the variant now accounts for 20 percent of the U.S. cases, and is expected to double in growth every two weeks in Florida. "In a month, we are fully expecting it to be the dominant strain in the United States and Florida," Gordillo says in a recent video press release.

“While we know that variants are present in Sarasota County, we do not know how many or what kind,” says Sarasota County public information officer Steve Huard. “We do not track this information. The state health department keeps track of all local and state data.”

Huard adds that CDC studies suggest authorized vaccines work to fight against circulating variants. “This is why we are continuing to stress the importance of vaccination,” he says. An Associated Press analysis, based on May 2021 government data, reports that nearly all U.S. Covid-19 deaths in that month were in people who had not been vaccinated.

Manatee County health officials are also unaware of the kinds of variants present in the county, as they don't track this information, either. Officials are also unsure of whether a variant caused the recent outbreak. All Covid-19 tests conducted in Sarasota, Manatee and Florida’s other 67 counties are sent to the state health department’s lab in Jacksonville, where variant data is tracked and stored. While the state contains this information, individual counties have not received it.

“No one knows which version of Covid causes illness and death in any particular case until we hear back from the lab in Jacksonville,” says Manatee County Health Department communications director Christopher Tittel. “There has been speculation that the two Manatee County employees who passed from Covid last week were victims of a variant, but at this time, that is speculation.”

Dr. Jennifer Bencie and Mask Up Manatee!/Vax Up Manatee! delivered a news conference on Wednesday, June 16.

Manatee County’s health officer Dr. Jennifer Bencie is working toward retrieval of variant figures from the department of health in Tallahassee. While this information will prove insightful, the county’s course of action in eradicating the virus remains the same—through vaccination.

“Covid-19, either in its original or variant form, remains a serious threat to public health,” says Tittel. “Practicing basic prevention measures can help stop the spread of the virus in any of its forms.”

For local hospitals treating patients already infected with Covid, protocol will remain the same. Sarasota Memorial Hospital, which has treated more than 2,000 Covid-19 patients since the outbreak began in March 2020, does not have variant information either.

“We have submitted positive tests for variant testing in Jacksonville, but we don’t get those results back to us,” says Savage. “We just treat people for Covid. It doesn’t matter whether they have variants or not.”

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