Sarasota County Health Department director warns County Commission of severity of COVID-19 pandemic

City of Sarasota authorizes Police Department to issue citations to people who ‘flagrantly violate’ new city directive restricting social gatherings to no more than 10 people who are staying at least 6 feet away from each other, in accord with CDC guidelines

Chuck Henry addresses the County Commission on March 24. News Leader image

On March 24, Chuck Henry, director of the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County, provided an update to the Sarasota County commissioners about the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“This is a very serious issue,” Henry stressed. “It really gives me pause,” he added, when considering how quickly COVID-19 cases were multiplying around the world. Sarasota County went from a total of eight on March 20 to 21 as of that morning, he continued, “and I expect that to continue exponentially.”

On the afternoon of March 26, the City of Sarasota announced that it had extended its declaration of a local citywide public health emergency through April 3 and that it is prohibiting social gatherings in groups of 10 or more. Further, Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch and City Manager Tom Barwin emphasized “the need for voluntary compliance with social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reduce the transmission of COVID-19,” a city news release pointed out.

City leaders have authorized sworn officers of the Sarasota Police Department to issue citations to people who do not voluntarily comply with the social gathering restrictions but, instead, continue “to flagrantly violate” the CDC guidelines.

A violation would be considered a second-degree misdemeanor, the release pointed out.

“Residents also are strongly urged to stay at home except for essential activities,” such as “shopping for necessary supplies, working, taking care of others or responsibly exercising outdoors,” the release added.

“We want and expect the community to voluntarily comply during this public health challenge, and for the most part we are seeing that,” said Barwin in the release. “This new directive will give our public safety officers an additional tool to keep our community safe and reduce the risk of spreading this highly contagious coronavirus. All should have gotten the message by now, and it’s simply time to be good neighbors and responsible citizens for the community’s good.”

Henry’s comments to the County Commission this week — and the latest actions of Sarasota city leaders — have been underscored by the twice-daily reports of the Florida Department of Health on its COVID-19 webpages, including the dashboard staff created.

By 11 a.m. on Monday, March 23, the number of positive COVID-19 cases confirmed in Florida residents had jumped to 1,096, with another 75 cases in the state having been determined in non-Florida residents, the Florida Department of Health reported.

The total number of deaths was 14, the department noted.

As of that time, the majority of cases — 588 — were under investigation, the Health Department reported, with 235 having been linked to travel; 203 linked to contact with a person who had contracted the virus; and 145 checking both the figurative boxes of “Travel” and “Contact with confirmed case.”

That March 23 report further noted 19 confirmed cases in Sarasota County. Miami-Dade County topped the list with 267 cases; Broward was in second place, with 258; and Palm Beach County had 89. Hillsborough’s total had jumped to 73.

Almost exactly 24 hours later, the number of confirmed cases in state residents had risen to 1,330, with another 82 listed in non-Florida residents, the Florida Department of Health reported. Sarasota County’s count was up to 26.

The total number of deaths was 82.

Two days later, the total number of cases in the state had nearly doubled, to 2,355, and the death rate was up to 28, as of the Florida Department of Health’s 11:34 a.m. report.

Sarasota’s case count had climbed to 34, that update noted. Miami-Dade had 616; Broward had 504; and Palm Beach County was up to 164. Hillsborough was not far behind, with 142.

This is part of the Florida Department of Health ‘dashboard’ report as of 11:34 a.m. on March 26, the last available before the News Leader‘s deadline this week. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health

A March 26 update posted shortly after 1 p.m. also said that, as of that time, 22,295 deaths had been reported worldwide, while the U.S. death total stood at 1,049.

This is a section of the world map on the Florida Department of Health ‘dashboard’ as seen shortly after 1 p.m. on March 26. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health

On the afternoon of March 24, Sarasota Memorial Hospital (SMH) announced that two of its COVID-19 patients had died earlier that day. “One of the patients tested presumptively positive for COVID-19; the other was a patient with suspected COVID-19 whose test results remain pending,” the news release explained.

“On behalf of the hospital and the clinical team dedicated to caring for these patients, we extend our deepest sympathies to their families and friends,” said Sarasota Memorial CEO David Verinder in the release. “It is a sad and sobering reality to see the effects of this virus across the world, and now in our own community, but our team stands united and prepared to fight this together,” he added in the release.

Late on the afternoon of March 25, in its daily update, SMH reported that the results of the second suspect patient who died on March 24 “came back negative.”

In its March 25 update, SMH noted that, as of 4:30 p.m. that day, 21 positive cases of COVID-19 had been diagnosed at the hospital.

Of those patients, the news release said:

  • 11 were hospitalized at SMH.
  • 1 had died.
  • “The others were cared for either in the hospital or Emergency Care Center and released with follow-up monitoring by the Florida Department of Health.”
Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s main campus is near downtown Sarasota. Image courtesy Sarasota Memorial Hospital

The update on the afternoon of March 26 announced no new positive test results; the total for SMH stood at 21.

Of those, the news release said, nine people continued to be hospitalized at SMH.

“SMH continues to assess and send samples for COVID-19 testing for patients based on CDC guidance and priorities/capacity of the labs in our state,” its daily news releases point out.

In its March 21 update, SMH reported that one of its physicians went into self-quarantine late on March 17, “after close contact with a community member who tested positive developed symptoms the next day …” The physician tested positive on March 20, that news release said. “He did not require hospitalization. He is doing well and will be monitored at home for 14 days,” the release added.

“Patients and staff who had close contact with the physician in the days before he self-quarantined are being notified,” that release continued. “Although the physician was not symptomatic while working, three clinicians who worked closely with him have been asked to stay home as a precaution and self-monitor for symptoms for 14 days. All others are considered low risk for infection and will be monitored for symptoms.”

The realities and the response

“We’re not really going to completely stop the spread of the virus,” Henry of the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County pointed out to the County Commission on March 24. The goal, he said, is not to overwhelm the healthcare system “with a whole bunch of sick people all at the same time.”

Moreover, Henry emphasized, “We haven’t tested everyone [in the county].” He believed, he said, that perhaps less than 1% of the county population had been tested as of that day. “So there’s presumably a lot more cases out there that we haven’t identified yet.”
For that matter, Henry continued, 60% to 80% of the people who contract the virus “have mild symptoms.”

The best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, he also stressed, are practicing social distancing; staying home if a person is sick; lots of hand washing — 20 seconds with soap and hot water; and avoiding touching one’s face.

A person who thinks he or she may have the virus should contact his or her healthcare provider, Henry said. If the person does not have a physician, the person should call the Health Department.

This is a COVID-19 advisory on the homepage of the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County. Image from the website

In response to a question from Commissioner Christian Ziegler, Henry said, “Testing is still at a scarcity in our community.”

The type of swab needed for testing and the medium needed to transport tests to labs are in short supply, Henry added. Further, the masks, gowns, gloves and eye protection medical professionals need to use in taking the tests also are in short supply.

Chair Michael Moran noted the virus’ impact on the economy. “You’re going to see incredible pressure here over the coming weeks to release restrictions on commerce,” he told Henry.

How would healthcare professionals be able to denote the point of success in fighting the virus, Moran asked, so those restrictions could be eased?

“In all honesty,” Henry began, “I haven’t really been focused on the end game. … I’m still on what I call the ‘ramp up’ of our [epidemiological] curve. … Infections are increasing. … At some point … we’ll start down the slope. Then we can look at [resuming] commerce. … I don’t have an idea of where that top [of the infection curve] is right now.”

More details about Sarasota Memorial’s situation

Given the national reports about limited supplies for healthcare providers who need protection as they aid COVID-19 patients, Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s March 23 update said, “So far, we have been able to work with our vendors and partners to meet current needs and follow all CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines to safeguard patients and staff. Given the supply shortage across the nation, however, we also are working with our local and state government agencies to access emergency supplies should our inventory drop to a priority level.”

The news release added, “We sincerely appreciate the outpouring of offers to donate supplies from our generous community.”

Hospital staff also is reminding the public that elective surgeries have been canceled, and visitors are not permitted, with the following exceptions:

  • One support person for a Labor & Delivery patient.
  • One parent or support person (one visitor total) for a Pediatrics patient.
  • Two designated visitors for a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit patient.
  • Patients in certain extraordinary circumstances, such as end-of-life situations.
  • One accompanying person for an Emergency Care patient only while the patient is in the Emergency Care Center.
  • One support person for a patient in surgical, procedural and therapy departments, including Surgery, Cath Lab, Endoscopy, Pre-Admission Testing, Radiology, Outpatient Rehabilitation and other testing/diagnostic areas.

State parks closed

As of Monday, March 23, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) closed all state parks.

FDEP “has taken many measures to continue providing resource recreation at our state parks during this time, such as limiting operating hours and reducing visitor capacity at parks with [high numbers],” the department said on the Florida State Parks website homepage. “Unfortunately,” the announcement continued, “this has not resulted in the reductions needed to best protect public health and safety as Florida continues to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

The statement referenced Gov. Ron DeSantis’ directive last week to uphold the CDC’s guidance to maximize social distancing and to avoid gatherings with more than 10 people.

Other city of Sarasota updates

Among local notices, the City of Sarasota closed all playgrounds and other amenities — including tennis and basketball courts — at its parks, effective as of 9 a.m. on Wednesday, March 25.

The Circus Playground at Payne Park is among the amenities that have been closed. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“Outdoor park areas will remain open for walking, jogging, exercise and enjoyment,” the city news release said. Nonetheless, members of the public “are strongly urged to follow the directives and guidelines of federal and state health officials, including gatherings of fewer than 10 people and social distancing of at least 6 feet apart,” the release added.

Further, the Office of the City of Sarasota Auditor and Clerk has stopped accepting development applications until further notice. Applicants with questions regarding the submittal process are encouraged to call 941-263-6222 or email the Development Applications Coordinator at Sean.Wilkins@SarasotaFL.Gov, another city news release noted.

The public is advised to conduct business with the city either online via www.SarasotaFL.Gov or by phone at 941-263-6000.

“Garbage, recycling and yard waste will continue as normal,” a city news release pointed out. “Public safety, drinking water, sanitary sewer treatment, plans reviews, building permits and other services will continue.

Further, “Public parks, boat ramps, open spaces and fishing piers in the city limits remain open,” that release noted.

Supervisor of Elections offices closed to the public

On March 24, Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner announced that public access to his three offices — in Sarasota, North Port and Venice — was being suspended immediately and until further notice, in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“In the meantime,” Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner said in the news release, “we urge the public to take advantage of the online services that are available to them at www.SarasotaVotes.com, or to call us at 941-861-8619 for an appointment or for more information.”

Available services online include new voter registration; updates to addresses, signatures or party affiliations; and vote-by-mail ballot requests.

Candidates who have questions may email apotter@sarasotavotes.com or call 941-861-8606 for assistance, the release added.

Further, secure drop boxes are available at both the Sarasota (Terrace Building, located at 2001 Adams Lane) and Venice (R.L. Anderson Administration Center, located at 4000 Tamiami Trail S.) offices, where the public can drop voter registration applications and vote-by-mail ballot requests. Candidates also may use those boxes to drop off petitions or other election-related paperwork, the release noted.

Clerk of Circuit Court and County Comptroller update

On March 25, Karen Rushing, Sarasota County clerk of the Circuit Court and county comptroller, issued a notice for people who have been called for jury duty.

The Judge Lynn N. Silvertooth Judicial Center is located on Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota. File photo

In response to the new Florida Supreme Court Administrative Order 20-17 extending jury suspensions through April 17, 2020, she pointed out, anyone with a summons for jury duty dated between March 16, 2020, and April 17, 2020, “is not required to go to court as jury trials during this time have been cancelled.”

For additional information, Rushing invited the public to read the Impact of COVID on Jury Service in Florida (March 24, 2020).

For up-to-date information about the Clerk and Comptroller’s response to COVID-19, visit the COVID-19 Information page.

Contacts for public assistance

A Sarasota-specific call center for questions and concerns about COVID-19 is available through the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County: 941-861-2883. Subject matter experts are available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The most current, official information on COVID-19 in Florida may be found at www.FloridaHealth.gov/COVID-19.  A 24/7 hotline is also available: 1-866-779-6121.

Sarasota County leaders took a number of new steps over the past week, too, to try to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Those are available on county webpages. (See the related articles in this issue.)

In a March 24 announcement, county Media Relations Officer Sara Nealeigh advised, “For a list of contacts, utility bill payment options and how to access our online services, people can visit scgov.net/COVID-19.

People also are being encouraged to opt in for county text alerts by texting SRQCOVID19 to 888777.

Image courtesy Sarasota County

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