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Tests pending: Reports on virus have been a week behind situation

SEBRING — An unhappy revelation about novel coronavirus tests came from Florida Department of Health officials while at Tuesday’s County Commission meeting.

Not only has testing taken a few days, the state may be as much as a week or more behind in being able to gauge exactly how many people in the state have COVID-19.

However, they are catching up, said Patrick Hickey, environmental health director and epidemiologist for the Florida Department of Health for Highlands and DeSoto Counties.

“We have lab results pumping into the Health Department as we speak,” Hickey told commissioners.

In answers to commissioners, he said it’s safe to say that there are more positive cases in the county.

Mary Kay Burns, administrative director for the Florida Department of Health for Highlands and DeSoto Counties, said it’s her goal to let officials know about new cases before it hits social media.

Labs are supposed to give an hour of lag time to allow for notifications, especially for deaths, of which the county has had none.

Right now, the Florida Department of Health considers a person’s “infectious period” to start when they first show symptoms, Hickey said. From there, Health Department officials backtrack to determine how many people came in contact with that patient.

He said the “infectious period” may be redefined as time goes by, but the goal is to find anyone who may have been exposed and get them isolated.

Then, Hickey said, the Health Department looks into where that person was in the previous two weeks from having symptoms, in hopes of finding where he or she became infected.

How many tested in Highlands County? Hickey said up to 75, as of Tuesday.

Out of that, four have now tested positive.

Burns said the Health Department has brought in school nurses to help do contact investigations and find everyone who’s been exposed.

How long does a test take? Hickey said the Health Department sends test swabs to its laboratories in Miami, Tampa and Jacksonville, which have the test kits on site that analyze the sample. They return results in 24 to 48 hours, he said.

The lag is with the private labs, brought in to help handle the load, Hickey said, with results coming back in approximately six days.

Two thirds of the tests are being done by private labs, but the highest risk patients are being sent to the state labs, he said, to generate results the fastest.

Hickey said, if a patient was a door greeter at a store, for example, the Health Department would consider that “low-risk” because of the limited amount of face-to-face time someone would have with that person.

Commissioner Greg Harris asked if the tests are being overseen, both positive and negative, and Hickey said all tests — even those that are pending — have gone into a system to be monitored.

Hickey said another “hiccup” in reporting comes from some private providers thinking that the Health Department has to be the one to inform people of positive tests.

“Which is not the case. We don’t have to be the bearer of the news,” Hickey said.

Commissioner Don Elwell asked if the residential city of patients is being released. Hickey said that information is generated at the state level and very limited in demographic information, but cities have been only released recently.

The Health Department does provide addresses to Emergency Medical Services on positive cases and people that are tested, in case they respond to that address, he said.

Lockdown or restrictions? County debates level of restrictions on public places, stores

SEBRING —County commissioners have agreed by consensus not to make any more restrictions on local business or movement than have been imposed at the state level.

The only exception is that all county parks are now closed. Boat ramps will remain open.

Closed parks include the following:

- The Preserve of Sun ’N Lake, at Sun ’N Lake Boulevard and Balboa Avenue, Sebring.

- H.L. Bishop Park, 10 Lake June Clubhouse Road, Lake Placid (boat ramp still open).

- Highlands County Multi-Sports Complex, 216 Sheriff’s Tower Road, Sebring.

- M.L.K. Park, 141 Josephine Ave., Lake Placid.

- Lake Glenada, 2475 U.S. 27, Avon Park (boat ramp still open).

- Lake Francis park, 300 Cloverleaf Road, Lake Placid (boat ramp still open).

- Carver Park-Highway Park, 141 Josephine Ave., Lake Placid.

- Lake Henry fishing pier, 46 Lake Henry Drive, Lake Placid.

- Windy Point Park, 65 Windy Point Road, Lake Placid (boat ramp still open).

- Istokpoga-Cowhouse park, 2011 Lake Blvd., Lorida (boat ramp still open).

- Lorida Ballfields, 1909 Blessings Ave., Lorida.

- Josephine 3, 2430 Oak Beach Road, Sebring (boat ramp still open).

- Red Beach Lake park, 6701 Commerce Drive, Sebring (boat ramp still open).

- DeSoto City Park and Ballpark, 6300 County Road 17, Sebring.

- Lake Istokpoga Park, 720 Istokpoga Park Access Road, Sebring (boat ramp still open).

- Lincoln Heights Park and Ballpark, 4821 Muriel St., Sebring.

Commissioner Don Elwell, in light of the fact that Gov. Ron DeSantis has not considered a statewide “shutdown” for novel coronavirus, asked commissioners if they wanted to entertain more restrictive measures on what “essential” businesses should be open right now to “rip the Band-Aid off a little bit and try to flatten the curve here, locally.

“That way we don’t crush our local economy by stretching this out for three, four, five, six, eight weeks or longer, depending on how long the effects are of this,” Elwell said. “I just want to take the temperature here, pardon the expression, of the group to find out what you all think, because I’m a little frustrated with the fact that we have kind of indecisive action happening above us.”

Commission Chair Ron Handley said he preferred to follow the state’s lead.

“I understand where you’re coming from, to get ahead of the curve, but I — I personally think we don’t need to take that drastic of an action just yet, personally,” Handley said.

Commissioners Jim Brooks, Greg Harris and Arlene Tuck agreed with Handley.

“I personally think we need to start thinking about what we can do to help the people once we get out of this,” Tuck said. “We’re going to lose a lot of businesses if we can’t come up with some kind of plan to maybe assist them in some way.”

She said Lake Placid is “just dead,” especially restaurants.

Handley said restaurants can still sell carry-out or delivery.

When asked, Sheriff Paul Blackman told commissioners he reviewed calls for service after dark, to see if a curfew was in order.

“It’s the opposite,” Blackman said. “Folks seem to be doing really, really good. When the sun goes down, it gets dark, our calls for service are really falling through the bottom.”

He said people gathering on lakes, including one at H.L. Bishop Park on Lake June, “policed themselves,” especially after he called in officers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to talk with them.

County Administrator Randy Vosburg said closing public parks may discourage people from congregating, which isn’t against the law, but could spread the virus. He also said many parks have playground equipment that the county doesn’t sanitize daily.

Brooks said some like The Preserves and Lake Olivia are used mostly for passive open space activities, not events.

Handley suggested deputies could patrol parks for crowds, and Blackman said deputies could do that.

More than 450 people watched Tuesday’s meeting via internet livestream, typing in more than 800 comments, including that boats can become incubators and only a complete shutdown of parks and ramps would slow the spread of the virus.

County commissioners spoke with Patrick Hickey, environmental health director and epidemiologist for the Florida Department of Health for Highlands and DeSoto Counties. Hickey said he thought keeping boat ramps open would be fine.

“These same people are going to the grocery stores and the parking lots full,” Brooks said, noting that he’d rather be in a park.

Grocery stores are open, but people concerned about social distancing can use curbside pickup or hired shoppers to deliver groceries to them.

Some local business owners, commenting on the livestream, said small businesses have suffered already and would suffer extremely from a lockdown.

Beverly Marshall, who attended in person, said a lot of businesses have many employees in direct contact with people every day who could have the virus for nine days before showing symptoms.

“You are creating a mass undertow, then, of contacts you will not be able to follow — a mass undertow of people who are going to infect other people, and you are not going to be able to track it,” Marshall said.

Elwell asked Highlands County Emergency Manager LaTosha Reiss about the impression she’s gotten from statewide conference calls.

“Right now, the feeling that we’re seeing is that the governor is a little bit reluctant to do that, because, I think, ultimately he and everyone else want people to follow the orders that are already out,” Reiss said. “And if those are followed, we won’t have to take that next step.

“And I think that’s what everybody’s hoping for, but we’re just not seeing them take the action we’re asking them to,” Reiss added.

Elwell said it would make sense to have a severe isolation for two weeks to “reset” the situation, but Reiss said it’s not that simple.

Reiss said Alachua County has issued a stay-at-home order, but she also cautioned that scientific models of complete shutdowns suggest that doesn’t work for the long term.

“It will control it in a group, and then as soon as you’re exposed to an exterior again, it opens up that process again,” Reiss said.

Nothing’s going to get rid of the virus for good, she said.

Highlands County to suspend recycling temporarily

SEBRING – The Highlands County Board of County Commission directed County Engineer Clinton Howerton Jr. to suspend recycling services temporarily in the county.

Howerton informed commissioners that the county’s waste collection service provider was experiencing difficulty trying to offload recyclable materials at out-of-county facilities due to coronavirus (COVID-19).

Effective today, Wednesday, recycling service in Highlands County is suspended until further notice. For now, residents may place trash in both the blue and green bins and place them curbside for collection on their scheduled day.

Also, the hazardous waste recycling center located at Skipper Road will be closed until further notice.

The Highlands County landfill remains open to the public.

To report a missed pickup, go to highlandsfl.gov and click on the Garbage Collection Complaint Form on the main page, or call 863-402-6505 (Highlands County) or 863-655-0005 (Waste Connections).

For continuing updates, follow Highlands County BCC on Facebook by searching for highlandsfl.gov and on Twitter @HighlandsFLBCC.

Coronavirus cases climb to 4 in county

SEBRING — Two additional cases have been reported on the Florida’s COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard run by the Florida Department of Health and confirmed with the Highlands County Board of County Commission.

Due to HIPAA laws, there are limits to information that can be given out about the patients. The Florida Department of Health stated on its surveillance dashboard, of the four patients, one is a male, the other three are female.

As of yesterday, there were two females, one, 77 and the other 78 years of age. That means one male and one female have been added. As of the 6 p.m. update, only one patient has needed to be hospitalized. The patients range from 39-78 years old, with an average age of 62, according to FDOH.

One case is travel related, one case is unknown and the other two people are not travel related cases.

According to the FDOH, there have been 22 people tested in the country, with 14 negative tests, four pending tests and the four positive test results.

As of the 6 p.m. update on Tuesday there have been:

• Total cases – 1,467

• Florida deaths – 20

• Monitoring – 1,249

FDOH reports a total of 16,046 people tested in Florida:

• Pending tests – 1,297

• Total negative – 13,358

The state COVID-19 24/7 question line is 866-779-6121. Please do not call law enforcement with coronavirus questions. There is no curfew or quarantine in place.

In his press conference Tuesday, Governor Ron DeSantis said he is not ordering a stay-in-place order citing New York as an example. He said when New York was ordered to shelter in place, people left the state in droves, many of them flying into Florida. DeSantis also said the president has worked with governors and let them tailor mitigation to fit their needs. He said when there is a lockdown, some people may gather in groups and unintentionally infect each other.

DeSantis said on Tuesday he wants anyone over the age of 65 and anyone with serious medical conditions to stay at home for the next two weeks. Additionally, he has asked all non-essential businesses to use at least 50% telecommuting, to ensure social distancing as the state continues to fight against the spread of the novel coronavirus. DeSantis made the announcement at the capitol as the number of positive cases for COVID-19 increased to more than 1,400 in Florida. DeSantis says senior citizens are at the greatest risk from the virus.

The News-Service of Florida contributed to this report.

Highlands News-Sun goes digital for two days a week

As with many other businesses in Highlands County, we are all working hard to stay safe while still continuing to provide a service to you, our clients and our readers. Sometimes that also means adjusting slightly to the current situation.

Starting next week, the Highlands News-Sun will not print on Monday and Thursday, but will put its newspaper online those two days as it does every day. All work currently done by page designers and the newsroom will be unchanged. The stories will all go up on the website as usual and the eedition will continue to be available via the website at www.highlandsnewssun.com.

We will do this for two weeks and reevaluate as the end of the second week approaches.

All home delivery subscribers are able to access the online edition at no additional charge. Those subscribers who have not already signed up for the free online edition, should take this opportunity to contact us now so we can get you set up so that you won’t miss out on the Monday and Thursday editions for the coming weeks. Call 863-385-6155 for assistance.