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CARES into the community: County approves 11 of 26 community projects

SEBRING — Highlands County commissioners have approved 11 of the 26 applications for community programs through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds.

Legislative Affairs / Grant Coordinator Sydney Armstrong said that would account for $163,350 of the $250,000 allocated to that part of the program.

She said this is just for Phase 1 of the program. She and other staff members plan to reach out to the remaining applicants and get more information on their proposals’ tie-in to the COVID-19 pandemic, and possibly fund them in Phase 2.

Among the first round of approvals, whether funded in part or in full, are proposals by:

- Lake Placid Camp and Conference Center to distribute food and sanitary items countywide.

- Hope Haven Transitional Housing for more supplies for the additional rooms needed to handle homelessness created by the pandemic impact to the local economy.

- Avon Park Seventh Day Adventist Church to distribute supplies.

- Mt. Zion Christian Methodist Episcopal to distribute COVID-19 protection kits.

- Women of Purpose mental health initiative to tutor students not attending school in person.

- Nu-Hope Elder Care to reimburse additional costs for sanitization supplies.

- Church of the Brethren to pay for continuation of feeding being done because of the pandemic.

- Champion for Children Foundation to continue providing emergency rescue funds for people hurt economically by the pandemic.

- Samaritan’s Touch Care Center to reimburse COVID-19 testing for uninsured residents.

- United Way of Central Florida to pay for continuation of feeding due to COVID-19.

Armstrong did not mention which program was the 11th recipient for funding in this phase, and was unavailable for comment Wednesday because of illness.

However, she told commissioners that priority went to programs that are countywide and not being funded already.

Commissioner Don Elwell also asked for details on the programs from Armstrong on Tuesday, which she did not have at the meeting, but said she would be glad to send on to him.

Elwell said he had no problem with approving funds Tuesday and getting that detail going forward. He moved for approval, seconded by Commissioner Greg Harris.

Representatives from Bountiful Blessings Church of God asked commissioners about their application, and Armstrong agreed to meet with them afterward to examine their program’s COVID-19 connection.

“We look forward to approving yours soon,” Elwell said.

Armstrong also said she was pleased to announce that within a month of opening applications to the county’s share of surplus CARES Act funds, she has a request now to the Clerk of Courts Office to disburse $1,121,500 overall to small businesses and individuals.

Of those applications, $862,000 would go to small business assistance and $259,500 to individual assistance.

She said she had acquired additional hands to get through the process of reviewing applications, and had several applications still in review, but checks had already been mailed on Aug. 21 and 28.

Armstrong said more checks would be going out again Friday.

She said her office had received a number of thank you emails, stating how funds had been used, such as repairing a broken air-conditioner at a daycare.

“That’s always been a pleasure,” Armstrong said.

Skip Adams, a business owner present at the meeting, thanked the county for accepting and disbursing CARES Act funds. He said he didn’t qualify for much under the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

County Administrator Randy Vosburg said the plan was to fund 850 at a time in three phases, but 3,200 applied for the first phase.

Some will end up not being funded, he said, but he added that the county can also move funds around.

“We did have a tremendous response on it,” Vosburg said.

Armstrong hopes the review process will go faster in future phases, now she knows what it entails.

Vosburg said the county will also look into the federal reimbursement process. Elwell asked if it would be faster than for Hurricane Irma, which took more than two years.

It should be fine, Vosburg said, if federal officials will allow the county to get reimbursed for approximately $1 million at a time rather than having to spend several million dollars prior to reimbursal.

Handley asked if the county would have to front this next batch of money. Vosburg said yes, but may be able to move funds around to make it happen.

In a related item, the United Way of Central Florida presented the Board of County Commission for its 2019 fundraising efforts — the third largest in Central Florida.

United Way of Central Florida President & CEO Christina Criser Jackson joined Highlands County Area Coordinator Sarah Beth Rogers to present a Summit Award, one of three given to high donors in each of the agency’s three counties: Highlands, Hardee and Polk.

Highlands County Commission departments almost tripled their special event dollars from 2018, Rogers said, increasing the total campaign by 33% to $18,000. The most notable event was a 5K to open Panther Parkway on Dec. 7.

“I wish you could hear the response and relief in the voices of those we help,” Jackson said.

County discusses masks, moves forward as-is

SEBRING — As promised, county commissioners discussed a mask mandate Tuesday after the latest update of the COVID-19 situation.

However, county commissioners will keep things as they are, with no mandate. Emergency Manager LaTosha Reiss reported most numbers are in decline, except for deaths — 26 in the last two weeks.

“That’s the only point of bad news,” Reiss said.

Looking at numbers released by the Florida Department of Health on Monday, Reiss said Highlands County has seen a jump in the number of cases among 25-34-year-olds, making it the largest infected demographic group.

Speakers from the floor raised concerns about another group: Students and teachers at local schools.

“I’m glad to see you continuing to look at the issue and not close it out,” said Margaret Hamilton, who praised commissioners for readdressing the issue, asked if the county could report regularly on COVID-19 cases at local schools, as well.

Both Reiss and Commission Chair Ron Handley said that information would need to come from the school board. Reiss said some data is protected personal health information and she probably would only get names of schools, not numbers of patients.

Hamilton suggested that information published in the Highlands News-Sun had to be public record and clear to publish. Reiss said she probably could get information from the Florida Department of Health, but also suggested that local school COVID-19 data might have errors or fluctuations.

Anything would be good, said Hamilton.

Michelle Gresham said parents told her they only learned of cases in the schools through the newspaper.

“I’ve had teachers reach out to me that are pretty scared to go to school,” Gresham said.

Reiss said she would do her best to get information out there.

Skip Adams, a 40-year resident and business owner, thanked the county commission for taking the governor’s lead on the matter, with which he also agrees.

“I am in opposition to the mask [mandate],” Adams said. “I like to see the decision made up to the individual. I’ve felt that way from the beginning.”

Summer Sodrel, small business owner and mother of four, ages 2 to 15, said she was “100% against” a mandate, and thought their kids’ schools had been “wonderful” about teaching cleanliness and sanitization.

She said her family had visited places with mask mandates, and her children would touch their face more wearing a mask than they would without a mask.

“I felt they were subjecting themselves to more germs by wearing that mask,” Sodrel said.

Hamilton also asked what plans the county has to educate winter residents on COVID-19 practices and how best to have, or not have social gatherings. Reiss said the county “pushes out” materials constantly, but suggested visiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention online for social gathering protocols.

When Hamilton pressed the subject further, Commissioner Don Elwell suggested she talk with Highlands County Public Information Officer Gloria Rybinski.

“I know there have been efforts put out so far,” Elwell said.

Gresham and Elwell then debated how winter residents’ arrival might change COVID-19 numbers.

“All these numbers, I hate to say it, are a mixed bag for accuracy, at best,” Elwell said. “However, we have to use them for trending. [We’re] trying to use them as best we can and take in seasonality as best we can.”

Commissioner Jim Brooks said he gets emails and calls against a mask mandate, and said people should make their own choice.

Elwell said he concurred with Brooks, but not because of public opinion.

“I can’t go off of phone calls. I can’t go off of emails. I’ve got to go off the trends I can see. Trends are really where you have to go with this,” Elwell said. “What makes me happy is that the positive percentage is indeed going down.”

He said of 111 people tested one day recently, only two had the virus.

“One day doesn’t make a trend, but one day adds to a trend, for sure,” Elwell said. “There’s less of a case for masks now than there were two weeks ago in my opinion.”

Of commissioners, Elwell and Commissioner Greg Harris wore masks Tuesday. Handley, Brooks and Commissioner Arlene Tuck did not.

Of staff, Reiss, Assistant County Administrator Laurie Hurner and and County Administrator Randy Vosburg had masks, although Vosburg’s was often below his chin.

Audience use of masks was mixed. Hamilton and Gresham had masks. Hamilton lowered hers to speak.

Reiss said Highlands County has “community spreading,” meaning the virus is moving among the population versus being introduced from outside the community. The virus status is “spreading,” according to a county-by-county national database and COVID-19 dashboard at, where Highlands County was listed as “epidemic” a month ago.

All neighboring counties are labeled “epidemic” on the database.

Reiss said Tuesday, the county has 340 active cases, down from 473, and a case-doubling rate of 46.1 days, up from 37.4.

Also, 21 residents are hospitalized, down from 46.

Statewide, she said Highlands ranked 21st for case growth at 4.72% positivity, versus a recent ranking of 12th with a rate of 10.76%

Highlands is averaging 12.9 cases per day, she said.

Reiss advises people to continue wearing masks, wash their hands, keep physical distance from others, avoid large gatherings and, if they have symptoms, to call a doctor or the local Health Department office for immediate testing.

Highlands has 2 more COVID-19 deaths

SEBRING — The death toll from COVID-19 in Highlands County is now 69 with two more reported deaths in Wednesday’s update from the Florida Department of Health.

The total number of virus cases in Highlands County increased by 23 to 1,846. Currently there are 22 hospitalized in Highlands due to the coronavirus.

Statewide there were 2,402 new COVID-19 cases for a total of 633,442 and 127 more resident deaths for a total of 11,501 Florida resident deaths. There have been 150 non-resident deaths in the state.

Currently in Florida there are 3,516 people hospitalized with primary diagnoses of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. That was a decrease of 107 who were hospitalized from the Tuesday count.

Previous day testing results show in Highlands for 125 tests there were seven positives for a positive rate of 5.6%, which is right at the state rate of 5.62% out of 45,848 test results on Tuesday.

Among the Heartland counties, Hardee County had the highest previous day positive rate of 8.16%.

In Highlands, the age range of 25-34 has the most cases with 305, followed by 279 in the 45-54 range and 280 in the 55-64 age range.

There have been 304 cases in long-term care facilities in Highlands and 58 virus cases in correctional facilities.

Statewide there have been 4,811 deaths of residents and staff members of long-term care facilities.

In the Wednesday update of virus data, the following counties had deaths of people who tested positive for COVID-19: Bay, Brevard, Broward, Charlotte, Citrus, Collier, Miami-Dade, Duval, Escambia, Gulf, Hernando, Highlands, Hillsborough, Indian River, Lake, Lee, Leon, Madison, Manatee, Marion, Nassau, Okaloosa, Okeechobee, Orange, Osceola, Palm Beach, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Santa Rosa, Sarasota, St. Johns, St. Lucie, Sumter, Suwannee and Volusia counties.

In the United States there have been 6,088,187 virus cases and 185,123 deaths.

Worldwide there have been 25,836,032 cases and 858,436 deaths.