COVID-19 cases appear to be on gradual decline in the county, but health officer advises caution, indicating he has yet to see a ‘big trend’

County has sufficient personal protection equipment for those who need it, director of Emergency Services says

Editor’s note: The Sarasota News Leader is providing general reporting on the novel coronavirus to readers for free as a public service.

This ‘dashboard’ graphic provided by the Florida Department of Health before midday on April 23 shows the trend in COVID-19 cases in Sarasota County, along with the latest totals for county cases and deaths. It also provides state data (on the left side of the chart). Image courtesy Florida Department of Health

COVID-19 cases appeared to be leveling off this week in Sarasota County, the county’s health officer reported to the County Commission.

Nonetheless, Chuck Henry — who also heads up the county’s Health and Human Services Department — emphasized to the board members on April 22, “‘Great caution,’ ‘slow’ and ‘selective’ are probably the key words that I would use when I think about how we move forward in this community …”

In response to questions from Commissioner Nancy Detert, Henry said, “I think we all are looking at the data every day. … We’re just very cautious,” he added, because the novel coronavirus is “10 days ahead of us.”

Public health officials still continue to recommend that people who have symptoms — but do not believe they need to seek help from a doctor or a hospital — isolate themselves at home “and get better,” Henry added. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) standard, he explained, is for a person to remain isolated for at least seven days past the onset of the illness and at least 72 hours after the person is fever-free without use of medication.

He reminded her, “There’s no specific treatment [for COVID-19].”

When Detert asked whether a reduction in county cases had occurred over the previous five days, Henry replied, “In terms of new cases, yes.” However, he cautioned, “That could be tied to testing.”

“A week of slow drop doesn’t make a big trend for me, yet,” he told the commissioners.

Nonetheless, he acknowledged, “I think it is clear that transmission of the virus has decreased significantly because of the many social distancing actions taken by our governor and you, as our County Commission,” along with the actions of the county’s municipal leaders. “It’s less clear, however, what lies ahead.”

Florida Department of Health statistics as of April 22 showed the peak number of cases confirmed in the county thus far came on April 6, when the count was 27. On April 14, the number was 15; the next day, seven; on April 20, it was 11; and then on April 22, it was five.

This is the Florida Department of Health COVID-19 data as of the evening of April 22. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health
This is the Florida Department of Health ‘dashboard’ report on COVID-19 cases as of late in the morning of April 15. The Sarasota total as of that time is in the list on the right. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health

When Detert asked Henry whether the county has sufficient supplies for everyone who wants to be tested for COVID-19, Henry told her he believed adequate supplies are available to treat those with symptoms.

“Well, I’m not asking you to sign in blood,” Detert responded.

“We make every effort,” Henry replied, to provide testing to people who need it. Further, he told her, “Some physicians are more plugged in to where testing is available than others.” Thus, Henry said, if a physician is unsure about where to direct a person for testing, the physician can call the Health Department or Sarasota Memorial Hospital. He added that he felt public health officials in the county could “begin to say we’re close to covering all of the ill people [with testing].”

“We’re working diligently to increase testing in our community,” Henry told the commissioners, in recognition of the need to do more.

Health Department epidemiological teams and nurses are making every effort, Henry said, to trace the contacts of people diagnosed with COVID-19. “That’s one of our most important public health activities.”

Those staff members, Henry added, also are working on a daily basis to ensure that individuals with the virus are in isolation “or quarantined, as appropriate.”

Attention to elder care facilities

Henry further emphasized the efforts of the Health Department regarding elder care facilities in the county. Epidemiological teams and nurses are working at those centers to make certain staff members know the proper procedures for infection control, he pointed out.

Health Department employees check in with each elder care facility in the county every day, he said, asking whether any new cases have been suspected and whether the centers have sufficient personal protection equipment (PPE).

“We do follow up with calls and visits” at every facility where cases have been identified, he pointed out.

“We have taken advantage of state resources,” he continued, including the assistance of Florida Infection Control Specialist Teams assigned to the state’s Emergency Operations Center.

One of those teams has visited two of Sarasota County’s elder care facilities, Henry added. Those team members provide focused outreach in centers where residents have COVID-19, he said, to ensure every measure is being taken to stop the spread of the disease.

This chart lists the long-term care facilities in Sarasota County where staff and residents have been diagnosed with COVID-19, from March 2 through the morning of April 23. The Florida Department of Health emphasizes that some of these facilities no longer may have active cases. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health

In response to another question from Detert, Henry explained that, especially among residents of elder care facilities, the time between onset of illness and death has ranged from one day to 47 days, with 15.5 days being the average.

When people become ill, he stressed, that is “when the disease is being transmitted.”

Additionally, Henry noted, several elder care facilities in the county are on a list to take advantage of National Guard testing that will be provided by the state. “I don’t have a timeline yet [for that initiative],” he told the board members. “This has just evolved in the last few days.”

For a National Guard unit to conduct such testing, Henry explained, a facility has to have signed an agreement with the county. The majority of the centers have done so, he said.

This chart, updated as of April 23, shows total case numbers and deaths for long-term care facilities in the counties. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health

“We have a high percentage of our population who falls into that vulnerable population category” for contracting COVID-19, Henry added. In Sarasota County, he noted, 37% of all residents are over the age of 65. “In some parts of the county, that percentage is even higher.”

Henry also pointed out, “While it appears there is an immune response to this virus, the science is still out on that.”

There is no guarantee, he said, that if a person has had COVD-19 that the person is protected from becoming ill again with the disease “for any length of time.”

Sufficient supplies at this point

When Commissioner Christian Ziegler asked, “Where are we at in terms of PPE?” Henry replied, “We’re starting to catch up to where we need to be. … Every day, we’re getting more shipments in.”
Henry added that he believes all the hospitals in the county “are sitting pretty well” with their supplies of the equipment.

Rich Collins, director of the county’s Emergency Services Department, told the commissioners that the county, as of that day, had received a total of 14 shipments of equipment from the state. “I’m not aware of any specific facility with resources not met.”

Altogether, Collins continued, the county has received 37,850 of the N95 respirator masks, 350,00 procedure masks and 140,000 sets of gloves. “I think we’re swimming. We’re getting the supplies out.”

This is the April 23 ‘heat map’ produced by Sarasota County staff in collaboration with the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County. It shows the numbers of cases of COVID-19 by zip code over the past 14 days. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Collins also reported that, as of that morning, 49% of the ICU beds in the county were occupied, and 54% of regular hospital beds were available. “We continue to monitor that on a daily basis.”

Additionally, Collins said, “Right now, about 21.6%” of the calls the Sarasota County Fire Department is receiving are from people reporting flu-like symptoms. The Fire Department has been making use of its new Rapid Response Vehicles, he added, to reduce the need for use of PPEs among firefighters and paramedics. With those vehicles — which are SUVs — going out on the potential COVID-19 calls, Fire Department crews are able to stay at their stations, he explained.

“As of today,” Collins added, no county firefighter or paramedic was in isolation because of exposure to a person with COVID-19.