Social distancing is the only tool that local government officials have to blunt the impact of the coronavirus, Karen Chapman, director of the Okaloosa County Department of Health, told the County Commission Tuesday.

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SHALIMAR — Social distancing is the only tool that local government officials have to blunt the impact of the coronavirus, Karen Chapman, director of the Okaloosa County Department of Health, told the County Commission Tuesday.



"If we don’t blunt it, we will overwhelm our medical system, and people are going to die," Chapman said while speaking to the board via a speaker phone.


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Later in the meeting, the commission unanimously agreed to declare a local state of emergency to help protect residents and visitors from the coronavirus.


Earlier Tuesday, the state DOH confirmed a second case of COVID-19 in Okaloosa County. Like the first case, the second confirmed case is a woman in the age range of 61 to 78 and is travel-related.


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Declaring the local state of emergency will allow the commission to act with "a little more nimbleness" to help protect people in Okaloosa County, county Public Safety Director Patrick Maddox told the board.


The commission took several state-of-emergency-like steps Tuesday before approving the actual declaration of a state of emergency.


For example, the board agreed to close the public lobbies of the county water and sewer offices and county visitors’ centers until further notice.


Permits for events of 10 or more people were revoked until the end of April. No new permits of this kind will be issued until further notice.


Also, all non-essential county committee/board meetings were canceled for up to 30 days from Tuesday.


To stay updated and provide public guidance on coronavirus issues, the commission will hold emergency meetings at 8:30 a.m. March 24 and 31 in the County Administration Building in Shalimar.


During Tuesday’s commission meeting, Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel practiced social distancing by sitting next to one end of the dais rather than in her normal spot behind the dais.


Ketchel said she had just learned that a 34-year-old female friend of hers in Washington D.C. is "extremely sick" with the coronavirus. She also noted that the White House on Monday had released nationwide guidelines that recommend Americans to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.


In response to a question from Commissioner Graham Fountain, Chapman said there currently is no specific answer to how long the virus threat will last.


"Right now, we’re looking at periods of two months at a time," she said. "The (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is recommending gatherings of 50 or more to be canceled for at least the next six to eight weeks.


"We know so little about this virus, and so little about its patterns. Could it last until August? It could. If we don’t take some action now, we will prolong it at our local level."


Before the board approved various state of emergency measures, Commissioner Nathan Boyles had asked Chapman if she had any specific recommendations the commission should take to protect the public against the virus.


"Think of this as a Category 5 hurricane coming at you," she said. "This is an invisible virus coming at us. If it comes in and starts spreading, it will overwhelm our medical system."


She added that the actions of social distancing "may be pooh-poohed" currently, but they are necessary.


"There has not been enough testing to know if (the virus is) spreading," in Florida, Chapman said. "At minimum, I would take actions to minimize actions to limit social interactions in our community. We’ll reassess this on a weekly basis."