FORT WALTON BEACH — Since the Memorial Day holiday weekend in Florida, where the reopening of short-term vacation rental housing and the at-least-partial lifting of other state and local restrictions aimed at controlling COVID-19 all but replicated the crowds of a "regular“ Memorial Day weekend, new cases of the serious respiratory illness have been on an upward trajectory.
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By way of broad example, there were 503 new COVID-19 cases reported across the state on May 25. On Wednesday, more than 10 times that number of cases — 5,508, according to Florida Department of Health data — were reported for that single day.
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Nonetheless, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis remains determined to continue the economic reopening of the state. At a press conference last week, DeSantis played down the rise in cases, saying it reflected nothing more than increased testing for the disease.
“We’re not shutting down, we’re going to go forward, we’re going to continue to protect the most vulnerable,” the governor said.
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But even as the governor is taking that hard line on reopening, local governments are at least looking at the possibility of taking steps to address the increases in COVID-19 cases.
In Walton County, where 10 new cases were reported Wednesday, and in Okaloosa County, where 21 new cases were reported Wednesday, county leaders have indicted that at least some attention is being paid to contingency planning in connection with increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases. But neither county yet has any specifics with regard to what might trigger implementation of any contingency plan, or what form that plan might take.
Still, there are some indications of what might be coming, In Okaloosa County, for instance, the Air Force Armament Museum, a tourist attraction just outside Eglin Air Force Base, could be a precursor of upcoming actions by other attractions and businesses.
On its website, the museum notes that it will be closed until further notice “in an effort to protect the public health from the spread of COVID-19.” In something of a concession to visitors, the museum’s outside air park, which hosts static displays of numerous military aircraft, remains open, but with a caution to visitors to “please maintain 6 feet distance from any other visitors not in your party; and please do not visit if you are even possibly ill.”
Also in Okaloosa County, a widely distributed email from Dr. Karen Chapman, director of the Florida Department of Health in Okaloosa County, provided local officials and others who received it a primer on the current status of COVID-19 in the county and a look at the road ahead.
Noting that the wider availability of testing in the county will uncover more cases of COVID-19, Chapman’s email urges people to focus more on the rate of positive cases and hospital occupancy for COVID-19 in assessing the impact of the Illness on the community.
However, she also cautioned that increased community transmission of COVID-19 is part of a recent spike in COVID-19 cases.
Testing, once reserved for vulnerable populations such as the elderly, is now available to anyone in the county, Chapman said, and is routine in connection with hospital admissions.
Chapman wrote just a few days ago that “Okaloosa’s overall average is 3.7% positivity, which has risen slightly in the past three weeks. In late May we had dipped as low as 2.7% positivity rate and since then, have slowly risen fractions of a percent per week to arrive at 3.7% where we currently sit.”
While even this slow trend warrants ongoing monitoring, according to Chapman, there are consistently very few people, ranging from one to six, being treated in hospitals around the county for COVID-19 at any given time.
Nonetheless, Chapman wrote, the Okaloosa County Department of Health “has been actively engaged in contact tracing since the beginning of this battle and is sourcing the origins of the current case rise.”
Chapman went on to note that COVID-19 in Okaloosa County seems now to be more prevalent in people from 30 to 40 years of age.
Because people in that age group are not as susceptible to serious complications from COVID-19, that shift might play a role "in why the local hospital system is not showing signs of increased capacity or strain due to COVID-19,“ Chapman stated in the email.
“With the positive patient profile/age demographic making such a drastic shift toward younger, asymptomatic people with fewer co-morbidities and underlying health conditions, the vast majority of these newer positives are pre-clinical with good outcomes and will not cause strain on the hospital system,” Chapman went on to explain. “This is a stark comparison to earlier positive cases which were a much older demographic with more co-morbidities and underlying health conditions with a higher likelihood of poor outcomes.”
By the numbers, Chapman noted, “Even with the overall increase in cases, there are only five hospital beds occupied due to COVID-19, currently four in an ICU bed — not on ventilator. We have over 70 ventilators available just between North Okaloosa, Twin Cities and FW (Fort Walton Beach) Medical Center.”
Continuing her effort to walk people through the local COVID-19 numbers, Chapman went on to note that Okaloosa’s overall 3.7% positivity rate is below the statewide average of 6.2 percent. And, she adds, “Okaloosa County has less than 1% of the positive resident cases in Florida.”
But Chapman also sounded a cautionary note in her email, writing that as the county and the rest of the state are reopening from what had been some stringent efforts to keep people at home, “it is important to recognize that although we are gaining ground, the fight is not over.”
Noting the tend of rising cases and a slight uptick in positivity rates, Chapman went on to say that dealing with COVID-19 “will be a process, not the flick of a light switch.”
“We must still take care moving forward, protect each other and our vulnerable populations ...,” she wrote. “Reinforcement of these principles is key to success.”
Meanwhile, in neighboring Walton County, where the Chautauqua Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in DeFuniak Springs has been the site of dozens of COVID-19 cases — and of all of the nine COVID-19 deaths in the county — the facility’s operator is claiming to have turned a corner in its efforts to get the coronavirus under control.
Signature HealthCARE, based in Louisville, Kentucky, initially established a facility-wide testing program across all of its operations, and subsequently established specific COVID-19 units in some of its facilities.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Chautauqua had logged 32 COVID-19 cases among residents since the beginning of the outbreak. According to an email from Ann Wilder, Signature HealthCARE spokeswoman, as of Tuesday afternoon, 20 of those residents have been declared as recovered from the illness, after posting negative results in two follow-up tests.
Also according to Wilder’s email, all of the 30 Chautauqua staff members who contracted COVID-19 had posted two negative test results.