NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center expects another above-normal Atlantic hurricane season, but doesn’t anticipate the historic level of storm activity seen in 2020. USA TODAY
Pandemic, meet hurricane season — again.
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It’s hurricane season. Do you have enough bottled water? Batteries? Toilet paper?
What about a completed COVID-19 vaccination card, preferably at least two weeks old? If not, you’re unprepared for a severe weather emergency, according to Treasure Coast public health officials.
“Folks who may have to go into a shelter, they need to think about vaccination now and not wait until the last minute,” said Renay Rouse, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health office in Martin County. “If you’re doing the (Pfizer or Moderna) series, there’s no way you’d be able to complete that in time for a storm approaching.
“If you got Johnson & Johnson … you wouldn’t have time to build up the immunity.”
► Ana to Wanda:The 2021 hurricane names are here
► Rewind: Here’s the COVID hurricane prep advice we got in 2020
► ‘Record-shattering’:The 2020 hurricane season was anything but quiet
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The Pfizer vaccine, approved for children as young as 12, requires two doses 21 days apart. The Moderna variety, suitable for adults 18 and older, requires a pair 28 days apart. The J&J vaccine, also for those 18 and older, consists of a single dose. But in each case, the body doesn’t develop full immunity until two weeks after the final shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Imagine yourself “in a tight space with strangers” at a hurricane evacuation shelter, said St. Lucie County spokesperson Erick Gill. Such emergency facilities may act as safe havens or COVID-19 super-spreaders, depending on how many users are vaccinated.
“If you’ve been on the fence of whether or not you should get vaccinated,” Gill said, “well, [a hurricane] might be a good motivation.”
Hurricane evacuation in a pandemicIt’s not just emergency shelters Treasure Coast residents ought to consider, Gill said. Should evacuees travel out of state, they may inadvertently head to a COVID-19 hotspot.
“We can’t guarantee what the pandemic will be like outside of your own area,” he said.
The CDC says fully vaccinated people are free to travel domestically as they did before the pandemic — without COVID-19 tests or self-quarantines — potentially saving time during an evacuation.
Immunization isn’t mandatory in Florida, but unvaccinated evacuees may find themselves in a state with stricter protocols.
There’s one safety measure Gill said isn’t optional: “Familiarize yourself with evacuation zones and where your neighborhood is, and if it’s got a history of flooding.” That information is available at floridadisaster.org/knowyourzone.
USF survey: Shelters riskier than hurricane hazardsThis time last year — when vaccination wasn’t an option — most Floridians deemed emergency shelters more dangerous than hurricanes, a study found.
Over 7,000 people across 50 Florida counties, including Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River, were surveyed in June 2020 by a team of researchers led by Jennifer Collins, a professor in the University of South Florida School of Geosciences.
About 74% of respondents thought shelters were more dangerous than hurricanes in the age of COVID-19, according to the survey findings published in the April Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.
A 78% majority said they typically didn’t utilize shelters prior to the pandemic; about 86% said they wouldn’t use a public shelter during the pandemic.
Collins is continuing this research for the 2021 hurricane season, focusing on whether vaccine availability has changed evacuees’ plans.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the complexity of planning for hurricanes, as social distancing is in direct conflict with human mobility and congregation,” Collins said in a statement last month. “We are learning a lot about how people perceive their risk.”
A hurricane season like no otherThe 2021 Atlantic hurricane season likely will be active, with a predicted 17 named storms, eight of which may be hurricanes. Of those, four may be Category 3 or higher.
That’s according to scientists at Colorado State University, which earlier this month updated its 38th annual Tropical Meteorology Project forecast.
The report predicts an “above-normal probability for major hurricanes making landfall along the continental United States coastline and in the Caribbean.”
CSU researchers estimate a 45% chance that at least one major hurricane will befall the nation’s East Coast, including the Treasure Coast. That’s 14% higher than the average over the past century.
The forecast also addresses the probability that at least one tropical storm will come within 50 miles of each coastal state. Florida by far was most likely to be impacted in each category:
Named storm: 96%Hurricane: 75%Major hurricane: 41%The team predicted above-average activity last year too. That forecast came to pass; a record 30 named hurricanes churned in the Atlantic during the 2020 season.
The Treasure Coast was relatively unscathed. Still, the unprecedented collision of pandemic and natural disaster tested the region’s emergency preparedness. The test resumes in 2021.
“This past year has really made all of us think about how we do things and what we need to change,” Rouse said. “Hope is not a strategy.”
Indian River CountyIndian River County plans to open additional emergency shelters to prevent crowding, according to spokesperson Kathleen Keenan.
“We will be insisting on social distancing, as well as reducing the total available space in each of these shelters,” she said.
All shelters will require temperature checks upon entry and people with a fever will be placed in isolation. Masks will be mandatory only at special-needs shelters.
“This is our most vulnerable population, with many having underlying medical conditions,” Keenan said.
Roughly 56% of Indian River residents had been at least partially vaccinated through May 31 — the highest rate on the Treasure Coast — a TCPalm analysis of health department data shows. Indian River ranks sixth among Florida’s 67 counties for most vaccinations per 100,000 residents.
The county has had over 12,800 infections, 870 hospitalizations and 300 deaths.
St. Lucie CountySt. Lucie County shelters also will enforce social distancing and utilize isolation areas for people with COVID-19 symptoms, said DOH-St. Lucie spokesperson Nicole Rodriguez.
Shelter-goers are urged to wear masks. Though the county’s mask mandate no longer is in effect, “we are currently still in a pandemic response,” Rodriguez told TCPalm.
The county rarely uses all 12 of its emergency shelters at once, Gill said, but likely will open more than usual to allow for social distancing.
About 44% of St. Lucie residents had been at least partially inoculated through Memorial Day, the lowest rate in the region.
Over 27,400 infections, 1,900 hospitalizations and 650 deaths have been recorded in St. Lucie. The county ranks 10th in the state for variant cases per capita.
Martin CountyLike their Treasure Coast counterparts, Martin County shelters will have an isolation area. But the practice was in place long before COVID-19 hit, Rouse said.
“What if you have someone come in with [another] communicable illness? How are you going to handle that?” she said. “That’s standard protocol.”
DOH-Martin oversees only the special-needs shelter, Rouse said. The county government manages primary shelters.
Spokesperson Martha Ann Kneiss has not responded to TCPalm’s inquiry regarding what, if any, pandemic safety measures will be in place this season.
At 331 deaths through May 31, Martin has the most deaths per capita on the Treasure Coast, along with over 12,700 infections and 820 hospitalizations.
About 51% of the county population has received at least one vaccine dose.
Lindsey Leake is TCPalm’s health, welfare and social justice reporter. She has a master’s in journalism and digital storytelling from American University, a bachelor’s from Princeton and is a science writing graduate student at Johns Hopkins. Follow her on Twitter @NewsyLindsey, Facebook @LindseyMLeake and Instagram @newsylindsey. Call her at 772-529-5378 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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