With case numbers changing rapidly, Sarasota County’s health director offers recommendations to try to contain spread of coronavirus and explains steps to take if persons believe they are infected

State and county upgrade emergency levels in effort to ensure better coordination of response efforts and monitoring

A March 10 slide presented to the County Commission by the director of the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County offers advice on how to prevent spread of COVID-19. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County

With Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on the night of March 9 having upgraded the level of the state of emergency for the coronavirus response, Sarasota County staff has undertaken a comparable step, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis told the County Commission during its regular meeting on March 10.

The shifts to those higher levels, he explained, were implemented to ensure better coordination of response efforts and monitoring of the virus’ spread.

In the meantime, Chuck Henry, director of the county’s Health and Human Services Department — and head of the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County — stressed the primary precautions against infection.

Twenty seconds of hand washing is the principal means, Henry told the County Commission on March 10, along with staying at least 6 feet away from someone who is coughing or sneezing.

“Soap and water is still our very best defense,” he added, along with refraining from touching one’s face. “That’s a critical factor as well.”

“Hand sanitizer does a good job if there’s enough alcohol content,” he said.

The virus is “spread primarily though respiratory droplets and secretions from an infected person,” Henry explained of COVID-19.

This slide offers information about the incubation period and symptoms. Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County

“It is almost impossible to tell the difference [without testing],” he pointed out of trying to determine whether someone has the flu or the coronavirus.

“People that have severe cases [of COVID-19] develop pneumonia pretty rapidly,” he also noted.

Three of the public health laboratories in the state have test kits for the virus, he said. “Very rapidly, probably before the end of the week,” Henry continued, “testing will open up” in commercial labs, such as those operated by LabCorp. and Quest. “I expect [testing] to be widely available in a short time frame, depending on how that distribution [of kits] goes.”

Then health care providers will be able to test patients, he pointed out, and give the Department of Health “a better handle” on how fast the virus is being transmitted.

However, he stressed, commercial test results will have to be confirmed by labs equipped for work on viruses.

It takes about 24 to 48 hours for one of the state labs to get results, Henry said. Work also is underway on rapid testing as the next phase of response, he continued. That would enable labs to determine the results within 15 to 20 minutes, he said. Yet, “That’s a ways off as of yet …”

‘Rapid changes’ in numbers of cases

Early on during his March 10 presentation, Henry advised the board members that he felt it best not to play “the numbers game,” because of the rapid changes in case counts.

He noted that around 8:30 p.m. on March 9, the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee was reporting 12 cases statewide. On the morning of March 10, he continued, two new cases had been identified — one in Volusia County and one in Broward County.

This is the COVID-19 update from the Florida Department of Health late on the night of March 10. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health
This is the COVID-19 update about 12 hours later, as of 11:26 a.m. on March 11, from the Florida Department of Health. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health

The Manatee County case handled at a Sarasota County hospital “was technically the first case in Florida,” Henry pointed out. His department’s standard practice is not to identify specific facilities where cases have been handled, Henry noted.

Last week, news media reports named Doctors Hospital as the facility where the Manatee patient was admitted.

Further, Henry told the County Commission on March 10, two Sarasota County School District students have been advised to stay home for 14 days. The School Board released that information to the public the previous day, he added, after its staff collaborated with the Health Department and representatives of all the area hospitals on how best to word the advisory. The goal, he indicated, was to craft an announcement that would provide the essential details without inciting panic among parents.

“It’s not that they’re ill,” Henry emphasized of the students. The concern is that they could have been exposed to someone in another county who has the virus. The Health Department and the School Board want to ensure that if either or both become sick, he said, no one else in the school district would have had contact with them.

“There’s no illness in the schools. There’s not even an active case in Sarasota County,” Henry stressed.

Putting the illness in perspective

This slide offers details about the origin of the virus and its spread worldwide. Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County

Henry further pointed out that about 80% of people with COVID-19 get over the virus within three to seven days. “If you don’t need health care,” he said, “you should stay home and isolate and let the illness resolve. That’s going to protect our community.”

However, if a person begins developing difficulty breathing, for example, or other more serious symptoms, Henry added, the person should contact his or her health care provider immediately for directions about what to do.

“It’s not a good idea to go sit in a waiting room with other people, because you may expose them,” he emphasized.

The people most vulnerable to the illness are those in their 70s and 80s, Henry told the board. The Health Department in Sarasota County has nurses out visiting licensed care facilities with older residents, he added, to ensure that the proper protocols are being observed.

This slide offers details about COVID-19 in Florida. Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County

Henry further stressed that someone who is sick should not go to work. “We live in a culture where many times we’re a tough people,” who go to work regardless of illness, he pointed out. Nonetheless, with COVID-19, Henry said, people should stay home.

“People are buying up masks everywhere,” Henry continued. Yet, both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Florida Department of Health are emphasizing that only people who are sick who have to venture outside their homes should use masks. The masks also are necessary for health care workers trying to do their jobs, Henry pointed out.

The disappearance of masks from shelves in stores, he said, poses a problem for people in industries who have to have that type of protection for their work, such as painters and those who put up drywall.

Henry also encouraged the public to keep up with the latest information on the CDC website and the Florida Department of Health website.

“There’s a lot of science still to be done” in regard to COVID-19, he said.

As of that morning, he noted, the number of cases worldwide was slightly above 100,000, and approximately 3,500 deaths had been reported.

In a typical flu season, he continued, 20 million to 40 million people in the United States become sick, and 30,000 deaths occur.

“I think it’s really important to put it in perspective,” Henry said of the coronavirus.

This slide offers advice for people who believe they may have contracted COVID-19. Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County

However, he acknowledged, “Nobody has a crystal ball.” He added that health officials expect cases to continue to be identified in Florida and the rest of the United States.

“My best source of information,” he said, “is to drive people to the [Florida] Department of Health website” and to the CDC website.

Commissioners commended Henry and Rich Collins, the county’s Emergency Services director, for their efforts. They also applauded the communications that have been underway among community leaders.

“I think the key in dealing with a crisis like this … is being totally transparent … as soon as we know [facts] … and [then] offering strategies,” Commissioner Nancy Detert pointed out.