A coronavirus outbreak at a Florida government building killed two people and hospitalized several others who were unvaccinated against the virus, a county official said.
The Manatee County Administration Building reopened Monday after the virus that causes covid-19 spread throughout the county’s IT department and forced the building to shut down on Friday. Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes, who is also an epidemiologist, said six unvaccinated employees, including five in the IT department, tested positive for the virus within a two-week period.
The two IT employees who died last week were identified in local media and obituaries as Mary Knight, 58, and Alphonso Cox, 53.
Hopes said that the one IT employee, 23, exposed to the virus who was vaccinated did not get infected.
“This particular outbreak demonstrates the effectiveness, I believe, with the vaccine,” he said to reporters Monday. “All of the cases were non-vaccinated. They were unvaccinated.” He added in a news release, “Individual employees in the IT Department who were known to be fully vaccinated and who were in close proximity of those who were infected did not contract COVID-19.”
But even with the outbreak, masks will remain optional for staffers returning this week, with unvaccinated workers being “encouraged but not required, to follow covid-19 prevention measures.”
At a news conference, Hopes said he suspected the outbreak could have been because of the delta coronavirus variant, which spreads more easily. The Manatee County Health Department is working with epidemiologists in contact tracing and to confirm whether the variant was responsible. Hopes said that the high fatality rate from the IT department’s outbreak suggested “we are dealing with a variant unlike what we had last year.”
The Florida outbreak comes as the delta variant has a chance to be the dominant strain in the United States this summer. First found in India, the highly contagious variant, which is accounting for 6 percent of new infections in the United States, “is more transmissible than the alpha variant,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said last week. Walensky noted that while she fears a new strain could prove resistant to vaccines, she emphasized that full vaccination protects against the delta variant.
“As worrisome as this delta strain is with regard to its hyper-transmissibility, our vaccines work,” she said in a recent interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Florida, which has fully vaccinated 44 percent of its eligible population, has seen a sharp decline in the number of total doses administered in the past week. Manatee County, located in southwest Florida, has fully vaccinated 43 percent of its eligible population.
The Manatee Board of County Commissioners repealed coronavirus safety requirements last month and strongly recommended that people visiting the County Administration Building “use their best judgment” to protect themselves from a potential spread of the virus.
Then the coronavirus spread throughout the IT department, causing covid-19, killing and hospitalizing staffers. When the second employee died Thursday, the decision was made to shut down the building the next day so it could be disinfected.
“When you have that many cases, and you have a 40 percent fatality rate, you have to worry,” Hopes said to Florida Politics. “I would prefer not to have any more employee funerals.”
Yet the county announced over the weekend that “face masks will be optional for the public and employees inside the facility.”
“Visitors and employees who are fully vaccinated may return to work as usual,” Hopes said in a news release. “Unvaccinated individuals are encouraged, but not required, to follow COVID-19 prevention measures, including use of N95 or equivalent masks, which will be available at each entrance, and social distancing.”
Hopes defended the decision on CNN Monday, saying the focus was more on getting government employees vaccinated. The county is offering another vaccine clinic for employees at the Manatee County Administration Building on Friday.
“Clearly masks work, but the vaccine is more important at this point,” Hopes said.
Christopher Tittel, a spokesman with the Florida Department of Health in Manatee County, agreed with Hopes that vaccination among government employees is needed to help prevent another outbreak.
“We really need everybody to get onboard with this, whether it’s vaccination testing, prevention, all of it is so, so, so, so important,” Tittel told WTVT. “The vaccinations, they only work if people get vaccinated.”
Funerals and celebration-of-life events for Knight and Cox are scheduled to take place later this week.
Friends and co-workers remembered them both as loving community leaders.
Knight, an IT customer service center supervisor, was involved with Manatee County Women in Government and volunteered at local churches, according to her obituary. She’s survived by a large Italian family that includes her husband, six children and one granddaughter. Suzie McGuire, the acting IT director, wrote in an online message for Knight’s obituary that her close friend would be missed by many.
“She was a force beyond compare,” McGuire wrote. “Our hearts are broken.”
Cox, a senior systems analyst with Manatee County, was known in the area as a youth football coach with the Manatee Mustang Sports Academy for 20 years, reported the Bradenton Herald. The organization said on Facebook that Cox “personified dedication and selflessness,” and was “a father to the fatherless, a mentor to all, a hero in every aspect of the meaning, and a legend no less.” Reggie Bellamy, the organization’s commissioner, told the Herald that Cox impacted generations of young athletes.
“He had a lot of individuals that he touched, so it’s a very, very tough time,” Bellamy said.