Young Floridians saw the greatest ever in COVID-19 vaccinations as thousands died

With nearly 2,500 people a week in Florida dying during the peak of the Delta wave, the groups most devastated saw the largest increase in COVID-19 vaccinations. Two of the groups most hesitant to be vaccinated — 25-to-44-year-olds and the Latino population — led the state in new vaccinations while the Delta wave took its toll on the state.

The trend became especially apparent in South Florida, where younger people and minorities flocked to vaccination sites in August at even higher rates than the state as a whole, according to newly released data analyzed by The South Florida Sun Sentinel.

The data — obtained by the Sun Sentinel and other news media as a result of a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Health — offer the most comprehensive account yet of how segments of the population in individual Florida counties reacted to the Delta wave.

Where do we stand today? Although Florida saw a crush of people getting vaccinated during the Delta wave, the state is now trending downward in vaccinations. It has renewed frustration that complacency will again set in ahead of a potential next wave.

Overall, 49.7% of all Floridians (including children) are vaccinated for COVID-19, compared with 58.5% of the country’s total population. Children 5 to 11 began getting their first shots this week. Many vaccine holdouts were convinced to get their shots when they saw the toll of the Delta wave — with deaths mounting and intensive care units growing crowded.

At one point in August, the situation became so serious that Broward County led the nation in COVID-19 hospital admissions. The motivation for vaccination also could have been the pleas to get vaccinated from health care workers and dying family members.

“When you see a loved one die of COVID, now it hits home,” said Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam, whose city has a largely black and Latino population. “The consistent message from dying victims in these communities was, ‘I wish I would have gotten vaccinated.’ Family members who had hesitation listened and were compelled to get the vaccine.” It took about a month of devastation before more people chose to get their first dose.

As the daily death count began climbing to its eventual peak of more than 380 people in a single day, a push began in mid-July that would end about four months later with more than 2.8 people getting vaccinated during the Delta wave. “Florida caught up on vaccinations only because of how hard it was hit,” said Howard Forman, a Yale University professor in the School of Public Health.

“The alarm was there for people who wanted to listen. “People wanted to believe there was something special about Florida,” Forman said of some Floridians’ hope the state wouldn’t be hit as hard as other states. “I don’t think that turned out to be true.” Kelly Saks, a Miami Latina entrepreneur and influencer, took to Instagram and MSNBC to encourage the South Florida Hispanic community in late July to get vaccinated. Saks’ Cuban-American father was a healthy 71-year-old man with no underlying conditions.

He spent the last month of his life in a hospital, alone, attached to a ventilator while fighting for his life. ”Please, I urge you, if you’re able to — get vaccinated. For you, for your family, for the people you love, and for everyone else who cannot get vaccinated. It could save your life. It could have saved my dad’s life,” Saks wrote at the time. “I have never received such a response on anything I have shared,” Saks told The South Florida Sun Sentinel on Friday. “People sent me selfies of them with their band-aids after getting vaccinated.

There was a lot of misinformation out there, especially in our older Hispanic community. But some who were super-hesitant got their vaccine.” While Florida releases statewide vaccination demographics in its weekly report, the newly released information shows the significant jumps in vaccinations on a county level during the delta wave. In all three South Florida counties, Latinos and 25 to 44-year-olds were the groups getting the most first shots. In Broward County, the increase in COVID-19 vaccinations began on July 11, about six weeks into the delta wave. And by Aug. 2, the height of the uptake in vaccines, Latinos were getting their first shots at more than twice the levels as whites; 25-year-olds to 44-year-olds were getting first doses at four times the levels of those 65 and older.

In Palm Beach County, the increase in COVID-19 vaccinations also began on July 11. And by Aug. 2, Latinos were getting their first shots at more than 3 times the levels of whites; 25-year-olds to 44-year-olds were getting first doses at five times the levels of those 65 and older.

In Miami Dade County, only two age groups saw an increase in vaccinations beginning July 1: the 44- to 64-year-olds, and the 25- to 44-year-olds. However, on Aug. 2, Latinos were getting their first shots at nearly three times the levels of whites.

Leading up to the summer surge, Florida’s vaccine rollout had been different from many other states. After an initial frenzy for vaccines in January and February — and a priority on vulnerable seniors — the governor’s push to get residents vaccinated almost completely eased by the time younger groups became eligible.

By June, Gov. Ron DeSantis stopped holding events promoting the vaccines. When DeSantis allowed his COVID-19 state of emergency to expire on June 26, only about 57% of the state’s eligible population had been fully vaccinated, with Latinos and Black Americans underrepresented.

During the first week of July, Florida’s vaccination rate plunged to its lowest level since COVID-19 vaccines became available, the new health data show. Although the state lagged the nation in its vaccination rate, Floridians relaxed into complacency, not anticipating how devastating the summer COVID-19 surge would become.

Delta quickly found the pockets of unvaccinated people, sending thousands of Floridians to hospitals. As of Nov. 4, with new COVID-19 cases at their lowest level since early June, vaccinations have tapered off in all South Florida counties and statewide.

Last week, less than 48,000 first doses were given out, compared with more than 216,00 in late August. The most heavily vaccinated age group in Florida is 65 and older, which is 88% vaccinated, followed by the 60-to-64 age group, which is 85% vaccinated.

The 20-to-29 age group is 56% vaccinated. Florida’s teens 12 to 19 are 56% vaccinated as well. Sama M. Fombu, a family nurse practitioner in Miramar, says she faces new challenges in her efforts to get minorities vaccinated in Broward County: Some of her minority patients are not getting the second dose, others who are vulnerable are not coming to get boosters.

“It requires continuous education,” Fombu said. “I talk to people at grocery stores and gas stations … wherever I can educate. I reach out and plead with them. I tell them vaccination is important and will prevent you from hospitalization and death.”

Dr. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert with the University of Minnesota, warns Florida’s lull in new cases is temporary. He is seeing it happen elsewhere. “We have to keep vaccinating,” he said. “Until we achieve much higher vaccination rates, we will continue to see transmission and flare-ups.” European countries and many U.S. states are seeing new cases rising — even those with relatively high vaccine rates, he noted.

“The highly infectious Delta is burning through gaps in protection wherever it can,” Osterholm said. “We are not sure what triggers these surges but no doubt vaccines are preventing the hospitalizations and death we saw before their arrival.



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