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Highlands' first official COVID-19 case not official

SEBRING — Highlands County allegedly had its first official positive novel coronavirus case Saturday morning, but the report turned out to be an error.

The online tally by the Florida Health Department showed seven tests sent for verification and one positive result: A woman who lives in the county. However, local officials said they could not verify that because the Health Department had not officially notified the county.

“We do not have a case,” said Highlands County Public Information Officer Gloria Rybinski on Saturday. “They are testing the system and updated it with a case.”

Shortly after Rybinski spoke with the Highlands News-Sun, a push notification went out to subscribed wireless phones notifying residents that the one positive case was in error, and promising to post a press release online as soon as the state provided an explanation.

A social media post for the county also stated the same, a verbatim repost of a message emailed out at 12:15 p.m. Saturday by Amanda Tyner, community programs administrator for the Florida Department of Health for DeSoto and Highlands counties.

“The Florida Department of Health dashboard is currently showing an error that reflects one positive case in Highlands County,” the post stated. “We currently DO NOT have a positive case in our county.”

The post goes on to say that the state health official had requested an updated press release with an explanation.

“As soon as we get it, we will share it with you,” the post said.

Rybinski said it’s good news that the county does not have any official cases of the virus yet, but that doesn’t mean anyone should relax from their being vigilant and practicing good hygiene and social distancing to prevent getting a case here.

She said it’s only a matter of time, though.

“We have no case at this time,” Rybinski said. “We will get one.”

The Florida COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard is an online resource run by the Florida Department of Health, Division of Disease Control and Health Protection.

Rybinski said Highlands County has been working with the state to have the dashboard updated with the latest county information.

Many local health professionals have contacted the Highlands News-Sun, complaining that numbers of pending tests listed on the dashboard did not reflect the numbers of tests submitted.

Rybinski said the single positive case was a test change done at the state level, but it wasn’t removed before the dashboard updated statewide.

It wasn’t the first time an inaccuracy appeared on the FDH dashboard that created a panic. On Friday evening, the Florida Department of Health showed a virus-related death in Pasco County.

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office took to social media to correct that report and posted the following, “The Pasco Sheriff’s Office is aware that there was an inaccurate report of a Pasco County death related to COVID-19. However, after speaking with the Pasco County Department of Health, we can confirm that there are NO deaths in Pasco County from COVID-19.

“Please see the below statement from the Pasco County Department of Health:

‘There was an error in data input for the Florida Department of Health reporting system in Pasco County which has been corrected. Currently there are no deaths related to COVID-19 in Pasco County. We apologize for the error and will continue to keep you informed.’”

Sanitize properly: Wash your hands, counters, clothes

SEBRING — By now, everyone should know to protect themselves from the novel coronavirus by keeping their distance and washing their hands.

Have you also cleaned your countertops at home, your doorknobs, your keyboard (like the one writing this article) or your clothes?

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) say part of everyone’s daily disinfection routine should include all frequently-touched surfaces and objects: Tables, countertops, light switches, doorknobs, cabinet and drawer handles, and according to some infection prevention specialists, our clothes and our selves, as soon as we return home.

How do we make sure we do it right? The CDC has advice on that, too.

You may also ask, why? As long as things are wiped up with a paper towel, what’s wrong?

It just so happens that novel coronavirus can stay infectious on surfaces for as long as three days, according to study results released this week by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). You may have read that here, but it bears repeating — often.

The virus stayed alive up to three hours in the air, four hours on copper — which has traditionally been a great surface to kill bacteria and viruses — 24 hours on cardboard and two to three days on plastic or stainless steel.

The CDC and World Health Organization also advise that people take special care to disinfect their clothes, which would likely carry the virus as long as cardboard or even as long as plastic.

You avoid picking up, carrying or transferring the virus to anything or anyone by:

- Avoiding close contact with anyone who is sick.

- Not touching your eyes, nose and mouth before washing your hands.

- Staying home if you are sick.

- Covering any cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw that tissue in the trash.

Tips to disinfect surfaces are listed below.

Hard surfaces

For hard surfaces, especially often-touched surfaces, clean them up first with soap and water, then disinfect.

Make sure you have good ventilation and wear gloves.

You can use a diluted household bleach solution. As long as the bleach has not expired, the CDC states, it will be effective against coronaviruses.

Mix five tablespoons — one-third cup — for each gallon of water or four teaspoons per quart.

You can also use 70% alcohol solutions or consumer-grade household disinfectant cleaners, as long as they meet the Environmental Protection Agency standards to kill coronaviruses.

The CDC advises to make sure you keep the surface wet for several minutes to ensure germs are killed.

Soft surfaces

Clean the surface with soap and water or cleaners appropriate for the surface.

If you can launder the items, use the warmest possible water setting and dry items completely, or you can disinfect with an EPA-registered household disinfectant.


Make sure you wear disposable gloves and wash your hands with soap and water as soon as you remove the gloves.

Don’t shake out your dirty laundry. This will shake any viruses into the air.

Wash the items according to manufacturer’s instructions, with the warmest possible setting for that material, then dry them completely.

You can wash dirty laundry from an ill person with other people’s items, as long as you follow the above steps.

Also, make sure you clean and disinfect clothes hampers according to the above instructions for surfaces.

Wash hands

Always wash your hands thoroughly immediately after removing gloves and after contact with an ill person.

If your hands are not visibly dirty and soap and water are not available, you can use 60% alcohol hand sanitizer.

However, if hands are visibly dirty, always wash hands with soap and water.

Always wash your hands after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing; after using the restroom; after contact with animals or pets; before eating or preparing food, before and after providing routine care for another person such an elder or a child.

Someone sick

If you have someone who’s sick in your home, do all the disinfection you see above, and add in these protocols:

- Stay separated — The ill person should eat or be fed in their room if possible.

- Wash dishes separately — Wash any used non-disposable dish or utensil with hot water while wearing gloves or on the hot or “sanitize” setting in the dishwasher.

- Dedicated trash can — If possible, dedicate a single lined trash can for the ill person, use gloves when removing the liner and trash, and then wash hands afterwards.

District prepping in small groups for virtual instruction

SEBRING — Principals have been meeting with district administrators online this week in preparation for starting virtual school for all School Board of Highlands County students on March 30.

“We have been meeting virtually; We have been able to communicate back and forth; We get updates to them very quickly,” said Superintendent Brenda Longshore.

There were 10 or less principals in a room with four rooms used across the district, she said. They will be using the same technique with their faculties on Monday.

So there will be 10 or less in any open space and they will be using the virtual meetings with their faculties and staff as well as email and those types of things, but if they want to do something as a group they will do it virtually, Longshore said.

They planned to test having all principals connected today in a “Google hangout” to check the capacity for that type of work, she said.

The teachers will be creating virtual classrooms all week next week as they work to be ready to serve the district’s students on March 30.

Deputy Superintendent Andrew Lethbridge said all of the meetings they are doing now are done on the telephone or on Google hangout.

“Even for our meeting here today for our own staff, we split up into different groups, smaller groups, in different meeting rooms telephonically with Google hangout.

Lonshore said she sent out a memo and a short video on Thursday to all staff as they look forward to Monday. She wants to communicate well with staff and ease some of their anxiety as they start this new model of instruction.

Concerning online instruction, the district states it has distributed over 140 hotspots, through the 1Million Project, to district high school students to access digital resources.

The district is investigating partnerships with service providers to provide internet access to students while schools are closed.

District students in grades six through 12 already have a district provided mobile device. Students in grades three through five will be issued a district provided Chromebook that they will take home.

On Tuesday State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran announced that all public and private K-12 and career and technical center campuses are closed through April 15, 2020.

Schools are encouraged to operate virtually or through other non-classroom-based means to the greatest extent possible to implement distance learning.