LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – As the nation’s top health leaders loosen mask guidelines for fully vaccinated Americans, medical experts warn the COVID-19 pandemic has not gone away in Polk County.
“We are going to see people in the community who get COVID. There’s just no getting around it,” said Dr. Tim Regan, chief medical officer at Lakeland Regional Health, of the high amount of COVID-19 cases and vaccine hesitancy in Polk County.
Lakeland Regional Health is treating 80 patients for COVID-19, as of Tuesday afternoon, a trend that has remained for weeks, according to Dr. Regan.
President Joe Biden and Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, announced new guidelines Tuesday that recommend fully vaccinated people do not have to wear a mask outside, unless at a large event.
“When you’re fully vaccinated, you can return to many activities safely and most of them outdoors and unmasked and begin to get back to normal,” said Dr. Walensky.
Indoor activities, including going to the movie theater, public transportation and dining, are considered safe for vaccinated people wearing a mask, according to the new guidelines.
According to Dr. Walensky, studies show less than 10% of COVID-19 transmission occurs outdoors.
“The benefit of wearing masks outdoors is pretty limited,” said Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz.
Mayor Mutz advocated for Lakeland’s short-lived mask mandate last year.
He considers Polk County’s improving vaccination rates and loosened federal mask guidelines as a good sign.
“Our positivity rate remaining under 10% all works together to show that we’re making some strong gains and I think it’s a wise decision,” said Mayor Mutz.
“We’re not seeing a significant decline in local transmission in our area, especially in the Polk County region,” said Dr. Steven Achinger, managing partner at Watson Clinic.
Dr. Achinger warns the new federal guidelines are not a green light for people to do whatever they want.
There’s a danger, he says, of the recommendations being misinterpreted to include large crowds.
“You can still get a decent amount of transmission and that is borne out from various events. So just being outside doesn’t mean we can let our guard down completely,” said Dr. Achinger.