Social distancing, frequent and thorough hand-washing, and wearing of cloth masks stressed in effort to prevent further spread of virus
Editor’s note: The Sarasota News Leader is providing general reporting on the novel coronavirus to readers for free as a public service.
Although Sarasota County’s death rate for victims of the novel coronavirus has been higher than that of many other counties, Chuck Henry, the county’s Health Officer, told the County Commission this week that one primary reason is age: 37% of county residents are 65 or older, so they are in the high risk category.
Additionally, Henry said, 132 elder care facilities are located within the county. Between 25 and 30 of those have had cases of COVID-19, he added. “[It is] a really difficult virus to control once it gets into [such] a facility,” he added. “Transmission happens and you don’t know about it for 7 to 10 days.”
As of 10 a.m. on May 20 — the same day Henry was making his remarks to the commission — the Florida Department of Health data for Sarasota County showed that 12% of all Florida residents diagnosed with COVID-19 in the county had died. The state average at that point was 5%, the chart noted.
Commissioner Christian Ziegler asked Henry whether social distancing is working in the county, referring to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for people to remain at least 6 feet apart unless they are members of the same household.
“Overall, I think our citizens are doing a tremendous job,” Henry replied. Successfully dealing with the “new normal, whatever it is,” Henry pointed out, will depend on continued social distancing, use of cloth face masks by the public and good hygiene. “There’s always going to be pockets of individuals that don’t heed that direction. Frankly, they’re putting everyone else at risk.”
Henry added, “People need to think about who they may expose by their actions.”
“Our No. 1 goal as we move forward with opening things back up,” Henry said later, “is to be able to identify cases” and locate all the persons with whom infected individuals had contact.
When Ziegler asked whether Henry was aware of any county that has required its residents to wear face masks in public, Henry said he was not.
Still, Henry said he “strongly encouraged” people to use masks.
Ziegler then asked how Henry believed Sarasota County’s COVID-19 numbers compare to those of other counties.
“I think, overall, Sarasota County’s doing very well,” Henry responded. However, he continued, he prefers not to play what he said he calls “the numbers game.” He added, “Every county is unique in its own risks.”
Then Ziegler pointed out, “We were told there’s going to be a big wave of infections when we reopened the beaches.” Has the commission put the public at risk by allowing full access to the public area of the shoreline, Ziegler asked.
That full beach reopening was on May 4, Henry noted, which was about two-and-a-half weeks earlier. The incubation period for the virus is 10 to 14 days, Henry explained. Still, he continued, “I have not seen our community numbers climb dramatically.”
“But you haven’t seen any spike that you could attribute to the beach openings?” Ziegler asked.
“I have not at this time,” Henry responded. “If I do, I’ll be communicating that to [County Administrator Jonathan] Lewis as rapidly as possible.”
Case data and testing opportunities
At the outset of his May 20 remarks to the board, Henry said the latest data he had showed a total of 533 COVID-19 cases in the county, with 61 being the average age for infected persons. Of those people testing positive, he continued, 79% were white and 7% were black.
Of the 63 deaths, he continued, 38 were associated with elder care facilities.
Slightly more than 9,000 nasal swab tests had been administered so far in the county, Henry said, with 6% proving positive, which was 1% below the state average of 7%.
Of those persons tested at the state-operated site at the Mall at University Town Center, he added, about 1.6% have been diagnosed with the virus. However, he stressed of that site’s personnel, “They’re taking all comers,” regardless of whether persons have symptoms.
He also talked of the new state-operated site at the R.L. Taylor Community Complex, located at 1845 34th St. in Sarasota. (The City of Sarasota announced via Twitter that a total of 145 people were tested at the Taylor Complex just on May 18.)
Additionally, Henry noted the “pop-up” testing opportunities the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County is providing at various locations. People may just walk up or ride their bikes to those locations, as they may at the Taylor Complex, he pointed out.
When Commissioner Nancy Detert asked about his confidence in the type of testing being used in the county, Henry told her, “We’re very confident in it and the labs that run those [tests].”
The testing with nasal swabs allows the labs to run DNA profiles, he said.
“I would describe our levels of new illness as low … but steady,” Henry continued, “which is OK as long as it’s low.”
His big focus, he added, is “on building testing capacity.” That would give him and his staff a better understanding “of the viral load in our community.”
“As we continue to move forward,” Henry said, “I cannot stress enough the importance for our citizens to continue all those things that they’re doing,” including social distancing, the wearing of masks “out in public,” especially when people feel they will not be able to maintain appropriate separation from others, plus “washing hands frequently and thoroughly” and using hand sanitizer when hand-washing is not an option.
“These practices are just as important as testing in terms of containing the virus,” he stressed.
The restaurant question
Commissioner Detert also took the opportunity to ask Henry about the Health Department’s policy on reporting COVID-19 cases diagnosed in restaurant employees.
“With all of our positive cases,” Henry began, “physicians and labs are required by law to report those to the public health entities.”
The primary concern is the contacts infected persons have had with others, especially people with whom they have been in close contact, he explained. That is because the virus is spread through droplets, he noted.
“It’s very difficult to identify who was in restaurants and when those transmissions may have occurred,” Henry continued.
When Detert asked whether the Health Department is required to inform the news media of restaurant workers who have tested positive, he replied, “Statewide, our policy is not to,” unlike the situation with Hepatitis A cases.
“When there’s a public health advantage to making the public aware [of illness diagnosed in a restaurant employee], then we do that,” he said.
“So it’s at your discretion?” Detert asked.
“It is,” Henry replied. “We all assume that we may be exposed [to COVID-19] everywhere we go.” That is why he emphasizes the wearing of cloth masks for people whenever they are out in public, he said.