Walton County to conduct mass COVID-19 immunization exercise

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — In anticipation of the potentially quick availability of a COVID-19 vaccine, the Florida Department of Health in Walton County will hold a mass immunization exercise next month.

The department, in collaboration with the county's emergency management department and other community partners, will use the exercise to distribute the existing flu vaccine  to counter the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Holly Holt, the county's health officer, told Walton County commissioners Tuesday that her office is not hearing anything officially about when a vaccine might be available. In the meantime, announcements from pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech, and subsequent media reporting on those announcements have indicated that a COVID-19 vaccine candidate could meet the threshold for federal Food and Drug Administration emergency use authorization in a matter of days.

More:Walton County to buy rapid-test equipment to address COVID-19

“The information that I have is not what the news is saying,” Holt told commissioners at their meeting before adding that the health department is proceeding as if a COVID-19 vaccine will be available relatively quickly.

“We have been told it is coming soon, we just don’t have a definite (date) on that," Holt said, "but we are working just like it’s coming out."

According to Holt, the mass immunization exercise will offer drive-through vaccinations much like the county's drive-through COVID-19 testing efforts.

“We’re actually going to be giving flu shots, and actually working on that exercise like it was giving COVID vaccinations,” Holt explained.

More:Walton County eases COVID-19 emergency restrictions

In a related development, Holt told commissioners that the county is continuing to wait for delivery of three COVID-19 rapid-testing machines and associated testing materials. The machines can provide COVID-19 test results within 15 minutes, as opposed to a couple of days for traditional laboratory testing.   

Cars line the driveway waiting to get a COVID-19 test at a station set up at the Van R. Butler Elementary School on Walton County Road 30A.

In early August, commissioners approved an outlay of $338,864 of the county's share of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to cover the cost of the three rapid-testing machines, the staff required to operate the machines, and the test strips analyzed by the machines.

Delivery of the machines had been expected in October, but the vendor, California-based health care diagnostics manufacturer Quidel Corporation, has been difficult to pin down in connection with a firm delivery date.

Holt said she spoke with a Quidel representative on Tuesday, before the commission meeting, and was told that "they feel like our analyzers and everything will be coming in the next few weeks." But, Holt added, "I cannot get a definite (date or answer) out of them."

Also on Tuesday, Holt provided commissioners with her regular by-the-numbers update on the status of COVID-19 in the county. From Oct. 27 through Monday of this week, there were 3,885 COVID-19 tests administered in the county, she said, with 3,248 of those tests coming back negative.

Of the 637 positive tests, Holt said, 337 came from the Walton Correctional Institution, the state prison in DeFuniak Springs. On Thursday, the institution was listing 318 inmates with positive COVID-19 test results, with the same number listed in medical isolation. Thursday data from the prison also indicated 40 positive COVID-19 tests among the institution's staff.

Since COVID-19 testing began in March, 20,765 tests have been administered in the county, Holt said, with 17,718 of those tests coming back negative. There have been 33 deaths in the county attributed to COVID since March, according to state data.

In other local developments with regard to COVID-19, the county health department on Thursday issued a news release warning residents about "scam calls regarding COVID-19 test results during which the caller requests personal information."

According to the news release, the scam might be spoofing the health department phone number, meaning the caller is making it appear that the call is being made from a health department phone number.

"As part of contact tracing or the reporting of COVID-19 test results, the Florida Department of Health in Walton County will never ask for your Social Security number or personal financial information," the department notes in its warning. "We will only call you regarding your test results, to follow-up on a positive test result or let you know

about an exposure to COVID-19."

The release goes on to advise people who are unsure about the origin of any calls regarding COVID-19 test results to hang up and dial the department directly. The department's main phone number is 850-892-8015.