With just under half of eligible people in Polk County vaccinated against COVID-19, the rate of new vaccinations is slowing locally, and local health officials say the slowdown is both expected and disappointing.
In Polk County, 47.24% of residents age 12 and older had received at least one vaccine dose as of last Thursday, according to a chart compiled by LkldNow based on Florida Department of Health vaccination reports.
The latest state update shows that 215,561 Polk residents are fully vaccinated. That is 37% of the estimated 582,004 residents who are 12 or older.
The DOH suspended daily COVID-19 reports over the Memorial Day holiday weekend, so Thursday is the latest day for which figures are available.
Polk lags the state of Florida as a whole in the proportion of people vaccinated against COVID-19, according to data maintained by Gannett newspapers. The Gannett figures for Polk are lower than those in the LkldNow chart because they include all residents, not just eligible residents. In their calculations, 41.1% of Polk residents have received at least one dose of vaccine, compared with 49.6% statewide.
Thirty-one of Florida’s 67 counties have vaccination rates higher than Polk’s, with neighboring Sumter the state’s highest at 71.8% and Holmes County in the Panhandle the lowest at 21.1%, according to the Gannett tabulations.
While the rate is slowing, the number of vaccinations has not flattened. In fact, Florida’s vaccination total topped 10 million people last week. The early May emergency use authorization of Pfizer vaccines in those ages 12 to 15 years is likely helping to keep vaccination rates increasing. A recent mask guideline change also is fueling vaccination interest. Still, the percentage of those receiving new vaccinations is shrinking.
Steven G. Achinger, MD, Watson Clinic managing partner, points to a number of reasons vaccination rates are seeing a slowdown:
Because the demand was so great in December 2020 and January 2021 when vaccines were available mostly to older residents and those extremely vulnerable, vaccination rates took off quickly. Today, the vaccine supply is exceeding the demand.
“We knew the initial vaccination rates would be highest at the get-go,” Achinger explained. “Now we’re into the long haul, which is where I figured we’d be.”
If more individuals continue to opt out of being vaccinated, Achinger said, “that’s going to mean that COVID-19 is going to remain in our community for a long period of time.”
Looking for a vaccine in Lakeland? Check our list of locations at the end of this article.
These individuals may be holding out until they become infected, which is not as effective as being vaccinated, health officials say.
For starters, the strength and duration of natural immunity is not yet known and may not be as strong as the vaccines, Achinger said.
In addition, achieving immunity by contracting the COVID-19 virus can be risky, said Daniel Haight, MD, Lakeland Regional Health Medical director of infection Prevention. While research shows that high-risk individuals (those older than age 65 years or those who have diabetes, obesity, cancer, chronic kidney and lung diseases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) tend to have more complications from COVID-19, it is still unknown why those who do not have any of those risk factors sometimes fare very poorly after contracting COVID-19.
Also, natural immunity is not generally recommended because an individual with a mild case of COVID-19 could unknowingly pass the virus on to someone who is frail or unhealthy, making them very ill and possibly placing them at risk for dying, Haight said.
Statistics are beginning to paint a picture of those who are not yet vaccinated, which helps with education and awareness efforts. Achinger said he finds that those who have not yet received their vaccine often mention the following reasons:
- Personal beliefs and views on the pandemic in general or vaccines in particular prevent them from being vaccinated.
- Understanding the importance of vaccinations but wanting to see how vaccines play out. Full approval of the Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may change their minds, Achinger and Haight said. The FDA allowed vaccines to be administered on an emergency-use-authorization basis. The primary difference between emergency use and full approval is the production timeline. With emergency use, a vaccine is produced the same time it is being tested, rather than being produced after testing.
- Not feeling the pandemic –- and therefore vaccines — is a big concern.
Both Achinger and Haight said that knowing the viewpoints of each of these individuals can lead to meaningful discussions.
“Telling people what to do is not as beneficial as listening,” Haight said. “It is really important that we are talking with someone, not talking at someone.”
Most important, they say, stay positive and encouraging. “You can’t push people who aren’t going to budge,” Achinger acknowledged.
“One of the challenges is: How do you convince a young person who is not at high risk to get their vaccine? This is a team sport, a team effort. You have to get them to not look at this through their own personal lens: ‘What is the benefit for me particularly?’” Achinger said.
Haight said he finds the number of people who feel they are invincible against COVID-19 is shrinking. “Many of them have learned, and I think COVID-19 impacted people who wished they would have taken the step to get the protection,” Haight said.
How to increase vaccination rates
In addition to spreading awareness through established information channels like social media, Achinger said one way to increase vaccination rates is to never underestimate the power of old-fashioned patient-doctor conversations.
“I have a habit of asking everyone who comes through the door,” Achinger said. “It does work sometimes. We can use our doctor visits as a way of promoting vaccines. People want to hear from people they trust.”
Haight also suggested that vaccination rates could improve by removing physical barriers to receiving the vaccination, such as making vaccine administration more accessible, reducing vaccine doses to one required shot, and not penalizing someone for taking time off for vaccine side effects.
“We need creative ideas on how to bring vaccines to places that would be more convenient,” Haight said. “Time is a factor, both in receiving the vaccine and then worrying about timing it right so that side effects, if they have any, don’t interfere too much.”
Some cities and workplaces around the country have begun offering incentives, such as paid time off to get the vaccine and financial rewards (gift cards, cash) from their employer.
In addition, the CDC’s announcement on May 13 revising its mask guidelines apparently created an unexpected boost in vaccination interest, according to CNN. The new guidelines allow fully vaccinated individuals to no longer wear masks in outdoor situations and in most indoor situations, which indirectly turned into an incentive of sorts.
Until more Lakeland residents become vaccinated, it looks like COVID-19 is here to stay for a while, Achinger said: “It’s going to take a long, long time if we fight COVID-19 through natural immunity. That will result in low-level spread for years and years – maybe forever.”
Charts: Newly diagnosed COVID-19 cases in Polk have declined to about the same level as June 2020 while the level of daily testing is higher than at that time.
Local Vaccination Sites
Walk-ins accepted. Online appointments can be made at https://www.publix.com/covid-vaccine/florida.
Walk-ins accepted. Online appointments can be made at https://www.cvs.com/immunizations/covid-19-vaccine.
Florida Department of Health in Polk County
- 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays, 3241 Lakeland Hills Blvd., Lakeland.
- 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays, 245 E. Lake Ave., Auburndale
- 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays, 1700 Baker Ave. E, Haines City
Individuals who are homebound may register at [email protected].
Lakeland Regional Health
Appointment only. Call 863.904.1895 to schedule.
Appointments only. To schedule, visit https://www.walgreens.com/topic/promotion/covid-vaccine.jsp or call 1.800.1.800.925.4733.
Online appointments can be made at https://www.walmart.com/cp/flu-shots-immunizations/1228302.
By appointment only. Call 863.680.7190 to schedule.
LkldNow editor Barry Friedman contributed to this report, as did Margaret Leach, who compiles our COVID-19 charts.