Local figure linked to high number of Sarasota County residents 65 and older
Editor’s note: The Sarasota News Leader is providing general reporting on the novel coronavirus to readers for free as a public service.
The death rate in Sarasota County for those testing positive for the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, is close to 7%, compared to less than 3% for the state of Florida, Lynette Herbert, public health services manager for the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County, reported during the April 15 Suncoast Continuum of Care meeting.
That data is “concerning to us,” she said, referring to herself and her Health Department colleagues. She attributed the statistic to the fact that Sarasota County has an older population, which has been deemed more vulnerable to the virus.
Moreover, Herbert pointed out, the hospitalization rate for those in the county testing positive for COVID-19 is more than twice the state average. The county figure is 32%; for the state, it is 14%, she added.
In Sarasota County, she pointed out, 37% of the population is 65 or older. Altogether, she said, 22,680 of the residents are 85 or older. “They are our most vulnerable population,” she emphasized.
“We’re still a couple of weeks out from [the] peak use of resources” needed to fight the disease, Herbert continued during the Continuum of Care (CoC) meeting, which was conducted via Skype. That timeline is based on the latest data from the University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, she explained. The Institute’s latest projection shows the peak use of resources in Florida for victims of COVID-19 will come on May 3, Herbert noted.
The Institute’s most recent updates prior to the Continuum of Care meeting were announced on April 13, the University of Washington website says. The predictions assume “full social distancing through May 2020,” the website points out.
“At this point,” Herbert continued, “we are predicting zero shortage [of resources], not to say that things can’t change.”
Herbert called the Institute’s data “an excellent resource … we’re really watching … closely,” along with statistics that the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee updates twice daily on its website.
As of the morning of April 15, Herbert said, about 241 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in Sarasota County. Approximately 9% of those tested for the virus have been found to have it, she continued. That compares to the state figure of 10%, Herbert noted.
Overall, Sarasota County as of that morning had had 16 deaths, she said, representing about 3% of the state’s total.
“Yesterday was a little bit of a higher day,” she continued, adding that 72 deaths were recorded in the state on April 14.
The county Health Department’s primary focus, she told the CoC group, has been elder care facilities. Epidemiological staff members have been working with the state Agency for Health Care Administration, she said, and those county employees have been visiting assisted living facilities daily.
As for testing: Herbert pointed out, “We were kind of unique in our area … We were able to purchase some private lab tests …” As a result, the Health Department conducted drive-through testing at Sarasota County’s Twin Lakes Park on Clark Road. Altogether, she said, about 1,000 tests were conducted in the past couple of weeks, with about 10% to 11% showing positive results.
The next big focal point for department staff, she continued, is trying to providing testing for “populations in neighborhoods that couldn’t necessarily access [the drive-through service].”
Health Department staff is working on a plan to provide testing in North Sarasota, Newtown, Nokomis and North Port, Herbert added. “We’re very interested in setting up accessible sites and working through the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] criteria [for testing].” (Later on April 15, the Health Department announced free testing would be provided in Newtown on April 17, by appointment only.)
In response to a Sarasota News Leader question this week about local testing, G. Steve Huard, public information officer for the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County, wrote in an April 14 email, “We are seeing more testing supplies arrive in the community. Locally our [county Health Department] has about 300 tests kits available … for those in the CDC’s priority groups for testing.” (He provided the following infographic from the CDC that covers those groups.)
“Additionally,” Huard wrote, “I understand several local doctors/medical practices are now conducting testing locally as well.
In accord with Herbert’s April 15 remarks, Huard added, “[W]e are looking into potential opportunities to conduct additional testing in traditionally underserved areas of the community.”
Assisting the homeless
Then Herbert explained that the department “rolled out in earnest last week” its Homeless Isolation Sheltering Plan, which enables homeless individuals who have contracted COVID-19 to stay in a hotel. One homeless person released from the hospital “needed a place to stay,” she continued, so the Health Department paid for the individual to go to a hotel with which the department had made arrangements. The department paid for the room, she added.
Further, department staff has been working with providers of meals to the homeless on feeding plans that abide by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for allowing no more than 10 people to gather in a group and for them to remain at least 6 feet apart.
“I can’t say that it’s not been a challenge,” she noted.
The Health Department had been working to get personal protection equipment (PPEs) to providers of those meals, she said.
Krystal Frazier, interim coordinator of the City of Sarasota’s Homeless Response division, pointed out that she and her staff had worked with the two primary meal providers for the homeless “to implement a mobile type of feeding [service].”
In the past, she explained, those providers would “go to a designated area,” such as Five Points Park or the City Hall parking lot, to serve meals. “They have started handing out individually packaged [meals] to avoid group gatherings” and follow the CDC guidelines, she told the CoC meeting participants.
Staff has been working on designating three feeding locations, she continued. One will be in the area of Ninth and 10th streets, near Central and Cocoanut avenues, in the vicinity of the Salvation Army’s emergency shelter.
Resurrection House, which is located at 507 Kumquat Court in Sarasota, is the second location, Frazier continued. It is open on Tuesdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., she noted.
A third location will be the First Street side of the City Hall parking lot, she said.
The meal providers also will be distributing hand sanitizer to their homeless clients, Frazier added.
In response to a question, Frazier reported that the Sarasota Police Department has implemented a plan calling for officers working seven days a week, from 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., to visit all of what she said staff calls “the hot spots,” where homeless people typically gather in the city. The officers are trying to educate the homeless about the CDC guidelines, Frazier noted, and telling them the locations where they can obtain services.
Police Department officers “really are trying to urge [the homeless] to go to the Salvation Army” for assistance, she added.
Further, Frazier continued, city staff has been working on arranging for three locations for portable toilets and hand-washing stations for the homeless.
She pointed out that it had come to her staff’s attention that many of the public restrooms homeless individuals have been using have been overflowing.
During her remarks, Herbert of the Health Department made a point of giving recognition, too, to the volunteers with the Meals on Wheels program in the county, as well as the Senior Friendship Centers, both of which have been providing home delivery of meals.
Moreover, “Can’t say enough about All Faiths Food Bank,” Herbert emphasized, with its staff and volunteers “really stepping up.”
Another participant in the CoC meeting, Joshua S. Matlock, vice president and chief operating officer of CareerSource Suncoast, which is based in Sarasota, delved into the unemployment data linked to the COVID-19 crisis.
From 2007 through 2013, during the height of the Great Recession, the peak number of unemployment applications the State of Florida handled in a week was 40,000, Matlock said.
In 2010, he pointed out, the state’s unemployment rate hit a high mark of 11%.
In the third week of March, Matlock continued, the state processed 74,000 unemployment claims. Then, during the fourth week of March, he said, the claims numbered 228,000 — and those were “not all of the claims that needed to be submitted.”
Matlock noted the continuing problems with the state’s CONNECT unemployment website, which has been the focus of sharp criticism because of its inability to handle the workload brought on by the COVID-19 crisis.
“Those unemployment claims are staggering,” Chris Johnson, CEO of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, told Matlock. “I mean, 228,000 in a week — that’s just unbelievable.”
(The Suncoast Partnership is the lead agency for the Continuum of Care (CoC). Community leaders in Sarasota and Manatee counties established it as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2005, its website notes. It “is the collaborative applicant for federal grants for the CoC,” the website explains.)
Until he compared the COVID-19 unemployment data to figures from the Great Recession, Matlock responded to Johnson, “I had no perspective” on that figure.
During the Great Recession, Matlock said, his office averaged about 10,000 visits a month. “It was bad then,” Matlock said, but “it’s like it’s accelerating a year’s worth of claims in weeks.”
During the Great Recession, he continued, unemployment claims climbed over a period of time. With the COVID-19 public health emergency, he noted, “This is all happening at once.”
The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) has added 300 more agents at state call centers to help people file for unemployment, Matlock continued. Additionally, the DEO has hired three companies to provide another 450 more agents, and 37 extra servers have been added to the CONNECT system.
Further, he said, 1,700 volunteers from other state agencies have been assisting people who are filling out paper applications for unemployment. Those volunteers then upload the data in to the state system, he noted.
His organization’s 70 employees, Matlock continued, are helping the DEO by resetting PIN numbers for people who want to file claims online. “That’s a big hurdle for a lot of folks,” he noted of completing those resets. People cannot file claims without them.
Additionally, Matlock explained that if people fill out paper unemployment claims, they can take those to FedEx locations, which will mail them to the state at no cost. Envelopes that already have been addressed to the state, and metered, are being provided, as well, he said.