With coronavirus concerns on the rise across the United States and in Florida, it’s important to understand how the infrastructure in Okaloosa County would work in the case of an outbreak.
FORT WALTON BEACH — There is no way to avoid the rampant speculation and discussion surrounding the spread of coronavirus throughout the United States and the world.
To the people in charge of leading the response to any possible pandemic that might occur in Okaloosa County, there is no room for such speculation.
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"We do not answer 'what if' questions, as they do not exist in a vacuum," said Okaloosa County Director of Public Safety Patrick Maddox. "Other coexisting circumstances may change a response at any given time."
As of Friday, Florida has four residents diagnosed with coronavirus, including one in Santa Rosa County who tested "presumptively positive" but is still awaiting confirmation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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Maddox referred to the Florida Department of Health as the lead agency on pandemic response throughout the state, and Governor Ron DeSantis' Executive Order declaring a "public health emergency" on Monday as the two starting points for coronavirus concerns.
But in Okaloosa County, there is already a very detailed plan for how the infrastructure would operate in the case of an outbreak - detailed in the 143-page Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan approved by the board of county commissioners in December 2019.
The document, which is available online, spells out the line of succession, use of resources and law enforcement response in Okaloosa County should a pandemic hit.
In other words, it tells us who's in charge. And more importantly, it operates on the presumption that Okaloosa County and its residents would have to fend for themselves.
"This plan does not assume that any federal or state assistance will be forthcoming," the CEMP states. "Each entity is responsible for preparing its own implementation plans and procedures."
In the case of public health emergencies, which are categorized as "semi-frequent" occurrences, Okaloosa County Public Health takes the lead in the local response, but the true power lies with the Okaloosa County Board of Commissioners.
The line of succession in an emergency, as defined by the CEMP, puts decision-making in the hands of the commissioners. The line after that goes: any three county commissioners, the chairman or vice chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, any available county commissioner then the county administrator.
In the case of a pandemic, the responsibility for maintaining public order lies with the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office, which is also responsible for determining if and when to reach out to the National Guard for extra resources.
The most specific part of the CEMP that would apply to coronavirus is found under the Hazard Analysis, Section III, Category N: "Exotic Pests, Pandemic and Diseases" — categorized as a moderate threat.
It also gives a historical context to Okaloosa County's history in regards to pandemics, specifically a meningitis outbreak in 1996.
"Pandemics and communicable diseases are a particular risk to populations that live in congested areas, are highly mobile, or host frequent visitors from other areas," the CEMP states. "Okaloosa County, especially the southern area, fits all three of these risk factors. In 1996, the county experienced a meningitis outbreak that severely taxed local government’s capabilities and caused fear and anxiety among the residents. A significant amount of material and personnel support from the Air Force was necessary to successfully deal with the outbreak."