With school year approaching, COVID-19 is again on the rise in Okaloosa County

Tom McLaughlin
Northwest Florida Daily News

FORT WALTON BEACH — When the Okaloosa County School District opens its doors to students Aug. 10, many COVID-19 restrictions and protocols will have been lifted, according to letters sent out this week to faculty and staff. 

"We plan to strike a sensible approach, balancing student learning and mental health with COVID health and safety protocols," said Deputy Superintendent Steve Horton.

Things like contact tracing, cleaning protocols and offerings of hand sanitizers will remain in place, Horton said.

But the opening is coming when nearly one-in-five of all the country's new coronavirus cases are occurring in Florida, according to White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients.

The numbers:Okaloosa County's COVID-19 cases up 13.9%; Florida cases surge 42%

In the school district:One year later: Superintendent Marcus Chambers answers questions about COVID at Baker School

The number of COVID-19 cases diagnosed in the state jumped from 23,562 to 45,603 between July 2 and July 9. There also had been a big jump in the number of cases the prior week, when the total rose from 15,998 to 23,562.

A man wears a mask as he walks along the Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier on Monday afternoon. Once commonplace, face coverings are becoming rare along the Emerald Coast as the number of COVID-19 cases increase in Okaloosa County and Florida.

Like many other areas of the state, Okaloosa County is seeing its own resurgence of COVID-19 cases. The 198 cases recorded between July 4-10 was 81 cases more than had been seen in the county the week before, and the average number of cases being diagnosed per day had risen to 28, or 12 more than the week before.

The Florida Department of Health in Okaloosa County rated the "community risk level" of contracting COVID-19 as high. That is the greatest risk level in a four-tier rating system.

Baker School students listen during a town hall meeting at the school in March about the impact of COVID-19. As the new school year approaches, COVID-19 cases are on the rise on Okaloosa County.

Also like many other areas of the state, Okaloosa lags far behind the national average for number of residents vaccinated against COVID-19. While National Public Radio estimates that 48.6% of the U.S. population has received vaccinations, in Okaloosa the number of residents 12 years old or older hovers at just over 38%, according to Health Department data.

It is the younger population that is pulling down the county numbers. The Health Department reports that more than 75% of adults 65 or older have received vaccinations.

Zients has emphasized the importance of vaccinations to protecting the health of all Americans. 

“Unvaccinated Americans account for virtually all recent COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths,” he said at a recent press briefing. “Each COVID-19 death is tragic, and those that are happening now are even more tragic because they are preventable.”

Some are calling the latest spike in COVID-19 cases a "fourth wave." In the United States, infections have more than doubled since the week of June 22 and total cases have risen in 48 states. Deaths are also beginning to climb, USA Today Network reports.

A health care worker administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to a patient during one of the drive-thru clinic held earlier this year at the Emerald Coast Convention Center.

Experts believe that in this latest assault, the virus is likely to target the unvaccinated, including children, and if rates are high enough, the most vulnerable of the vaccinated — the elderly and the immunocompromised.

"Since the majority of our population is now immune, it's unlikely that we're going to return to the massive nationwide waves we saw back in January," David Dowdy, an infectious disease epidemiologist with the Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said Wednesday in a webinar with media.

But major outbreaks can still occur, particularly in areas with low vaccination rates.

"We're going to be living in two pandemic worlds, the world that's vaccinated and the world that's unvaccinated," said Dr. Luis Ostrosky, chief of infectious diseases at UTHealth and an infectious disease specialist at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in Houston.

A medical worker draws a syringe of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Okaloosa County's Health Department during a drive-thru vaccination clinic held earlier this year.

The American Academy of Pediatrics released new COVID-19 guidance for schools Monday that supports in-person learning and recommends universal masking in school of everyone over the age of 2, regardless of vaccination status, according to a report by CNN.

Those guidelines represent a stricter position than that taken this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the report said.

“The AAP believes that, at this point in the pandemic, given what we know about low rates of in-school transmission when proper prevention measures are used, together with the availability of effective vaccines for those age 12 years and up, that the benefits of in-person school outweigh the risks in all circumstances,” CNN reported, citing the AAP guidance.

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