Health director says residents need to be ‘very cautious’
| Palm Beach Post
With coronavirus cases spiking across the country, Palm Beach County’s top health official on Tuesday rang a warning bell, saying recent local trends are cause for concern.
“I’m not causing panic,” County Health Director Dr. Alina Alonso told county commissioners about the steadily rising cases. “I’m just saying we have to be very cautious when we’re looking at this.”
After dropping for several weeks, the number of county cases has started to climb in the past seven days, she said. “The trend line is concerning,” she said.
The pattern continued on Tuesday, when a nine-day high of 230 new people in the county were diagnosed with the highly contagious respiratory disease, according to a daily update from the Florida Department of Health.
That means 1,122 people in the county have been added to the state’s case count in the past seven days. In the prior week, only 1,023 new cases were reported in the county.
In general, the county has followed state trends. The additional 3,662 cases logged on Tuesday across the state is above the average of 3,091 that were reported daily during the past week. It’s the fourth time in the past six days that new cases have topped 3,000.
The increase pushed the state’s case count to 760,389, including 49,298 in Palm Beach County.
Breaking ranks with Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has pledged to never again force businesses to close, Alonso said that limited lockdowns could become necessary.
Pointing to national numbers, she said cases have peaked three times since the pandemic began sweeping the country in March. The first time was on April 9, when roughly 34,000 new cases were reported. The second was July 16, when 77,362 were logged, a spike she blamed on Fourth of July weekend events.
Ominously, she said, the third time came on Friday, when more than 69,000 cases were reported.
Instead of flattening the curve, the country and Florida are on a roller coaster, she said.
“This comes when you open too soon,” said Alonso in a remark that appeared to be aimed at the governor’s Sept. 25 decision to allow all businesses in the state to reopen. “You never get to maintain the (downward) curve.”
At a press conference in Jacksonville, DeSantis insisted that all of his decisions — from forcing schools to offer in-classroom instruction, to allowing visitation at nursing homes to resume — have been good ones.
Saying that treatment, not closures, are needed to keep people safe, DeSantis pledged to send COVID-19 fighting drugs to nursing homes. Once they are available from the federal government, he promised that long-term care facilities would receive shipments of the antibody cocktail from Regeneron that President Donald Trump lauded as the key to his recovery.
Doubling-down on his stand to keep businesses open, DeSantis expressed the same view on schools.
“Going forward, whatever the future may hold, school closures should be off the table,” he said. “They don’t do anything to mitigate COVID but they do cause catastrophic damage to the physical, mental and social well-being of our youth. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the past.”
Alonso, however, wasn’t willing to take that option off the table. If the county experiences a second deadly wave, closures may be necessary, she said. “We may have to go back to some of the restrictions to stop the spread.”
Cases growing in older population
Fueling her concern about the growth of cases: It appears more older people are becoming infected.
While those between 15 and 34 had constituted the majority of the new cases, in recent days they have been edged out by those between 35 and 64. On Monday, the older age group accounted for more than 50% of those who recently tested positive, she said.
Those in higher age groups are more likely to suffer serious health consequences, including death, from the disease that she predicted will continue to haunt the county and the nation for two or three years.
Further, she said, recent reports of a man becoming re-infected with the virus dampens hope that a vaccine would help life slowly return to normal.
News of the reinfection is sobering, she said. “It hinders the vaccine because if the virus doesn’t give you immunity how will the vaccine?” she said of the question troubling public health officials.
Still, she said, other metrics are promising.
Positivity exceeds 5%
While the percentage of people testing positive for the virus spiked on Tuesday, it has leveled off in recent weeks, Alonso said.
The 5.50% positivity rate the county notched on Tuesday marked just the third time in the past 30 days it has exceeded the 5.0% level sought by global pandemic experts. Over the past 14 days, the daily rate has averaged 3.88%, according to state health officials.
The rate, which indicates the prevalence of the disease in the community, must consistently remain below 5.0% before contact tracing and other steps can be taken to contain the spread of the virus, according to the World Health Organization.
Statewide, the daily positivity rate soared on Tuesday as well. Of the 58,543 tests conducted statewide, 6.17% came back positive.
While the state has regularly exceeded the 5.0% threshold in the past month, Tuesday’s rate is the second highest in the past 30 days. Over the past two weeks, it has averaged 4.95%.
Deaths have also slowed. Florida health officials reported 86 fatalities statewide on Tuesday, including 14 in Palm Beach County. But, Alonso said most aren’t recent deaths.
As of Monday, she said, only one county resident had died of the disease since Oct.10. The 73 fatalities that were reported by the state since then occurred earlier, she said.
The delay in reporting of deaths is caused by a variety of factors, including medical examiners working on backlogs that occurred when the virus was raging, she has said.
Overall, 16,308 people in Florida have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began in March. Of those, 1,534 people in the county have succumbed to the disease.
Hot spot in Boca Raton
In hopes of controlling the spread, Alonso said her epidemiologists are monitoring hot spots, such as one in Boca Raton.
While the spread of the disease has slowed in the farming-rich western part of the county, she said health officials are taking steps to make sure testing is readily available to those who work in the fields.
The number of people hospitalized for treatment of COVID-19 has plateaued, according to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration. In recent weeks, about 2,100 people have been hospitalized across the state.
DeSantis said that number is likely to remain constant for the foreseeable future. Like other diseases, a certain number of people will continue to suffer serious health problems from the virus, he said.
Like the state, the number of patients in county hospitals has remained basically unchanged for the past two weeks. On Tuesday, 106 people were being treated for COVID-19, the agency reported.
Commissioners voiced frustration that they have few tools to deploy to curb the spread of the virus. Since DeSantis has made it clear that he, not local officials, will decide whether businesses will remain open, their main weapons are requiring people to wear masks and making sure testing is available.
Alonso urged the commission to stay the course by continuing the mask mandate and urging people to wash their hands regularly, get flu shots and shun large gatherings.
Vice Mayor Robert Weinroth said he worries that cases may spike when snowbirds return as cold weather hits the north.
“All we can do is impress on our residents that it’s not over,” he said.
Florida: 760,389 cases, 16,308 deaths
County: 49,298 cases, 1,534 deaths
U.S.: 8,258,568 cases with 220,743 deaths
Global: 40,624,378 cases with 1,121,469 deaths