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As omicron surges, Jacksonville's mayor downplays vaccines and questions the science

Vice President Kamala Harris talks with Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, as she visits the Jacksonville Community Vaccination Center, in Jacksonville, Fla., Monday, March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Jacquelyn Martin
Vice President Kamala Harris talks with Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, as she visits the Jacksonville Community Vaccination Center, in Jacksonville, Fla., Monday, March 22, 2021.

Mayor Lenny Curry wrote on Twitter that "'the science' isn't science" and that he is against vaccine mandates, as COVID cases surge nationwide.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry took to Twitter in recent days to downplay COVID vaccinations, even as the fast-spreading omicron variant sets back holiday plans around the country and raises fears of a lethal winter.

"Stop mandating & shaming people that aren’t vaccinated," Curry wrote Friday, "'The science' isn't science. It is a hypothesis that keeps on changing."

Meanwhile, new COVID cases have more than doubled in Duval County since the start of the month, according to new data.

The increase pushed Duval back into the category of “substantial transmission,” meaning the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends that everyone wear masks in public indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

Scientists project that the U.S. could reach over a half-million average daily infections by the end of January — more than double last winter's peak.

Sporting events, colleges and live theater all have announced postponements or outright cancellations because of infections.

Duval's vaccination rates lag the rest of the state and country. Just 61% of eligible Duval residents have gotten at least one COVID shot, compared with 70% statewide, according to the latest state Department of Health data.

Some early research suggests COVID vaccines are less effective against omicron than other variants, but the CDC still recommends them as the most effective tool for preventing severe disease.

City officials say the mayor's tweets, which tout monoclonal antibodies and oppose vaccine mandates, don't invalidate his support for getting vaccinated.

"Mayor Curry believes that the vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and the community from the effects of COVID-19," Jacksonville's director of public affairs, Nikki Kimbleton, said Monday.

"His tweet this weekend does not change that position. It’s merely pointing out that those who are vaccinated can still become infected with any variant."

Curry also wrote, "Monoclonal antibodies are a treatment that works" in his series of tweets Friday, but research suggests that monoclonal antibodies could be less effective against omicron, due to the new mutations to the virus.

Chad Neilsen, director of infection prevention at UF Health Jacksonville said those studies are leading him to encourage vaccines even more strongly.

"It is concerning that we we face a potential change in the way we have to treat patients who are high risk, given that the monoclonal antibodies have been so effective in the past," Neilsen said. "That's why we really want to urge people to get their shots and get their boosters."

UF Health Jacksonville is among local hospitals and clinics that are starting to plan for a potential surge in COVID cases in the coming weeks.

"We are, behind the scenes, ensuring that our supplies, whether that's for protective equipment or for testing, are in good shape heading into this season," Neilsen said.

The hospital system has seen an uptick in positive tests from outpatient care, but no increase in COVID hospitalizations yet, according to Neilsen.

The hospital system is not requiring COVID vaccinations for employees, based on guidance from the University of Florida.

At Ascension St. Vincent's hospitals in Jacksonville, COVID hospitalizations haven't increased yet either, according to spokesman Kyle Sieg.

At the beginning of November, 11 people were hospitalized for COVID across the organization's three locations in Jacksonville. All 11 patients were unvaccinated.

As of Monday, six people were hospitalized for COVID. One patient was vaccinated.

Baptist Health Jacksonville said it had 20 COVID positive patients as of Monday, about the same number as a month ago. The hospital system had 178 cases during the delta spike the third week of September.

Meanwhile, some local stop-in urgent care clinics have seen more patients, according to Avecina Medical CEO Saman Soleymani.

"We have stocked up on all of our testing supplies and analyzers to make sure that we can treat patients and increase staffing at all of our locations," Soleymani said. "Over the last two weeks, we've definitely seen an uptick on volume of patients."

He said those patients are a mix of people seeking testing for holiday travel, other seasonal viruses and COVID patients.

Like UF Health, his clinics do not require employees to be vaccinated.

According to mayor's office, Jacksonville is not considering reimplementing a mask mandate.

Kimbleton, the public affairs director, cited Gov. Ron DeSantis' May executive orders banning local governments from enacting "restrictions or mandates upon businesses or individuals due to the COVID-19 emergency."

Copyright 2021 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.

Claire Heddles
Claire joined WJCT as a reporter in August 2021. She was previously the local host of NPR's Morning Edition at WUOT in Knoxville, Tennessee. During her time in East Tennessee, her coverage of the COVID pandemic earned a Public Media Journalists’ Association award for investigative reporting.
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