COVID-19 putting pressure on local governments, military installations

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — As COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the area, Walton County officials are feeling pressure from local businesses both to step up testing and to institute a countywide face mask requirement.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Okaloosa County, Hurlburt Field — headquarters of Air Force Special Operations Command — is requiring everyone on the installation to wear a mask at all times, except when they are in base housing, or are involved in physical training, at which time social distancing is required.

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The mandate became effective at one minute after midnight Tuesday morning.

Col. Jocelyn Schermerhorn, commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing and installation commander at Hurlburt Field, cited the increase in local cases, both on the base and in the surrounding community, as the reason for her decision to mandate the wearing of face masks.

RELATED: CORONAVIRUS: Okaloosa drive through testing dates for this week

“This increase in infections poses a serious risk to the health and welfare of our workforce, families, and community, as well as our readiness and national security missions,” Schermerhorn wrote in an announcement of the masking policy.

Statewide data on COVID-19 from the Florida Department of Emergency Management does not break down positive Okaloosa County COVID-19 cases occurring specifically on Hurlburt Field, but the installation reported its first positive case in March, and state data do show that 41 COVID-19 tests have been administered at the installation’s clinic, with 18 positive results, although that’s not a clear indication that all of those cases involve installation residents.

At nearby Eglin Air Force Base, which recently returned to a mission-essential posture, there is no installation-wide masking mandate in place, although masks are required at the base hospital, commissary, base exchange, dining facilities and other locations, and there is general guidance requiring masks where six feet of social distancing can’t be maintained.

Eglin reported its first confirmed COVID-19 case on March 19, and as of early June, had reported just one additional case. By June 16, four positive cases were reported on the base, and by Monday, the number had risen to eight cases.

Overall, according to the Florida Department of Emergency Management, Okaloosa County had reported a total of 917 positive COVID-19 cases as of Monday morning.

The Okaloosa County Health Department has been offering free drive-through testing for a number of weeks, and will continue that testing this week. On Tuesday, drive-through testing will be offered from 4:30 p.m.-7 p.m. at Northwest Florida State College, 100 E. College Boulevard in Niceville, and on Thursday, drive-through testing will be available from 8:30 a.m. until 10 a.m. at the NWFSC campus in Fort Walton Beach, at 1170 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Each drive-through testing site is limited to 450 tests; if that limit is reached during testing hours, testing will be suspended.

COVID-19 testing also is available by appointment at the county health department by calling (850)-344-0566.

The drive-through tests administered in Okaloosa County are the swab tests being administered in many other counties around the state, including neighboring Walton County, with results reportedly available within five to seven days, although there have been reports of longer waits.

In Walton County, where tourism is the keystone of the local economy, officials are feeling increased pressure from restaurateurs and other tourist-oriented businesses both to step up the pace of local testing, and to work toward making faster tests available, which can provide results in as little as 15 minutes.

That rapid testing is needed, merchants say, so that when they have a worker test positive for COVID-19, they can know quickly whether other employees have the illness, in order to make appropriate plans for the height of tourist season.

“It’s a countywide issue,” said Jeff Goldberg, director of Walton County Emergency Management, “and the South Walton folks (where restaurants, vacation rental operations and other tourist-related businesses proliferate) have been very vocal. And that’s not a bad thing.”

But, Goldberg went on to say, the rapid COVID-19 tests are in short supply. Even local private clinics that get access to the rapid tests may have as few as 50 tests on hand at any one time,“ he said.

Hillary Glenn, nurse practitioner at the Point Washington Medical Clinic in South Walton’s Santa Rosa Beach, bolstered Goldberg’s point. It’s likely to be weeks, if not months, Glenn said, before rapid COVID-19 tests will be available in numbers adequate numbers to meet the increasing demand locally and elsewhere around the state and the country.

But, Goldberg noted, increased testing, whether rapid testing or the more routine swab testing, creates its own set of problems. As testing produces an increased number of positive results, Goldberg noted, there is an increased need for contact tracing to track down other people who may need testing.

While the Walton County Health Department is looking into the possibility of hiring additional personnel to do contact tracing, the department currently is relying largely on state-assembled teams of contract tracers that come into communities for two weeks at a time to do that work.

In addition to looking into the possibility of hiring additional contact tracers, Walton County officials also are taking steps to increase the speed and availability of drive-through testing, Goldberg said.

Under one such initiative, eight paramedics, from both Walton County Fire Rescue and the South Walton Fire Department are being trained to administer tests.

Also, Goldberg said, the county is approaching the local Ascension Sacred Heart Medical Group to provide assistance in COVID-19 testing.

“We’re trying to do some out-of-the-box thinking,” Goldberg said. And, he added, business owners, while pressuring the county for action, do seem to have some understanding of the realities of efforts to step up COVID-19 testing.

“They’re in business,” Goldberg said. “They understand supply and demand.”

They also apparently understand the art of applying political pressure. Even as many business owners are pushing for improved testing, some also are championing an interim measure.

In the iconic beachside town of Seaside, where face masks have been mandated inside businesses in the town’s commercial district for more than a month, the Seaside Community Development Corporation is urging business to petition the Walton County Board of County Commissioners to institute a countywide face mask mandate.

“Many of you have expressed frustration that we do not have the support of county leadership to require masks/face-coverings,” the SCDC said in a recent notice to the town’s merchants.

The notice goes on to ask the merchants to “(p)lease take a moment and send an email to each Walton County commissioner and request our county leadership to require masks. We believe that a mass number of requests will help further drive home the need for (the) county to step up and help us slow the spread of the virus.”