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County adjusting shelter rules under pandemic

SEBRING — When Highlands County opens wind-rated shelters for the next hurricane, COVID-19 social distance requirements will reduce their capacity.

“Under the new requirements, sheltering is going to be limited,” said Emergency Manager LaTosha Reiss, “and that is going to be a concern.”

The old requirements of 20 square feet per person for the general population and 60 square feet per person for special needs, have gone up because of COVID-19 to 60 square feet for general population, and 110 square feet for special needs.

Also, there can be no more than 50 people in any open area, Reiss said. If a general shelter has multiple classrooms or conference rooms, those can be used, but any large arena can still only have 50 people.

That’s a problem, Reiss said, because Alan Jay Arena at the Highlands County Fairgrounds is the county’s largest, most-used shelter during and after disasters and can hold well more than 50.

Given the 110-square-foot requirement for special needs shelters, Reiss said Emergency Management may look at moving the special needs shelter from the Bert J. Harris Jr. Agri-Civic Center on George Boulevard to the Alan Jay Arena and setting up other shelters.

“We are checking on electrical loads to see if that will be a conducive option for us this year,” Reiss said.

Also, she said, all congregate sheltering will require a health screen. People will have to have their temperature taken and will have to answer a series of questions.

Those whose health is a concern or who refuse to have the screening will have shelter in a separate area of the facility, away from other people.

If anyone can stay with family or friends, or at a church that is safe against the winds, she recommends planning for that.

The state is working with the county on non-congregate sheltering plans, she said.

“Fortunately, but unfortunately, they are working on a statewide plan,” Reiss said, “which means a lot of their efforts, at first, are focused on the larger population centers, and not so much on the interior of Florida.”

A member of the public asked if Reiss had approached hotels or motels as possible non-congregate shelters.

Right now, she said, the state is working on contracts with hotels throughout the state to provide non-congregate sheltering, as well as an internet portal for people to preregister.

However, supply will be much lower than demand, Reiss said, especially when coastal counties have to evacuate for storm surge.

Also, Reiss said her staff or identifying “shelters of last resort,” which would be “just a building” and a “safe place to stay during the winds.”

Meanwhile, Reiss said her staff and the county’s information technology staff are setting up communications to run the Emergency Operations Center out of several government buildings, not just one, to provide social distancing there.

“We already have multiple redundant communication techniques — such as traditional phone, email, text message,” Reiss said, “but we also have satellite phones, as well as the ham (amateur) radio, that can be utilized in the event of a communication issue.”

Meanwhile, with the recent statewide and local increases in coronavirus cases, Reiss said it will now take less time than Highlands County’s old baseline of 44 days to double its number of cases.

She said 40% of the population is over age 65, the hospitalization rate has dropped to 26.16%, and the mortality rate is 5.23% with just 5.02% of the population tested.

Reiss asked people to remember to maintain social distancing, at least six feet apart.

“I know I’ve seen a lot of people out in public that are super-happy to be out there again, and they are hugging and gathering in groups and wanting to catch up on everything,” Reiss said. “So, just try to avoid that as much as possible.”

She also advised people to not touch their eyes, nose or mouth; to cover any coughs or sneezes, and to clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces.

“Most people will think about their computers and laptops and things along that line,” Reiss said. “Most people forget about their cellular phone that walks around with them all day long.”

She also reminded people to wear a cloth mask over their nose and mouth each day, for others’ sake, if not their own.

“Your mask will protect me. My mask will protect you,” Reiss said.

Anyone who’s been exposed to COVID-19 needs to call their healthcare provider for testing.

And as always, she said, stay home if you are sick and/or running a fever.

Reiss gave her presentation to the Board of County Commission via phone, because she was feeling sick on Tuesday.

Vosburg said the county has asked employees to monitor their symptoms daily — which was how Reiss discovered she had a fever — so employees can then stay home and get better.

Also, he said county department directors have continued to meet via internet teleconferencing, keeping them from all being in the same room at once.

Census 2020 innovations mean less face to face contact, amid COVID-19 pandemic

The Census Bureau has incorporated several design innovations into the 2020 Census. The goal is to cut dramatically the cost of conducting the census while still maintaining accurate, quality population and housing data.

An unintended benefit may be the need for less face-to-face interaction between the public and Census employees, hence less risk amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The innovations are outlined in the 2020 Census Operational Plan: A New Design for the 21st Century.

The census, which is conducted every 10 years, involves four major activities. First, the Census Bureau identifies all the addresses where people may live. Second it asks each household to answer a few short questions about its housing unit and the members who live in that unit. Third it follows up with those households that have not responded.

Fourth, it issues a report on its findings. The report is used to reapportion the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, redraw congressional, state, and local district boundaries, and allocate funding to state and local governments for critical programs and services.

According to the Operational Plan, all Census 2020 innovations are designed to decrease the amount of fieldwork done by census workers (enumerators), whether it’s to identify address changes or to do follow up with households that did not fill out their census questionnaires. Fieldwork is the most costly part of the census.

With the COVID-19 pandemic threatening us daily, a reduction in fieldwork comes at an opportune time, since the Census Bureau must be careful to protect the health and safety of the public as well as its employees.

A reduction in fieldwork is made possible because the Census Bureau is making greater use of electronic data sources as well as smart technology.

Census 2020 innovations include the following:

The Census Bureau has reengineered the way it does address canvassing. Instead of sending employees to physically walk and check 11 million census blocks, the Census Bureau undertook an in-office review of 100 percent of the nation’s addresses, beginning in September 2015.

Using data from the U.S. Postal Service, tribal, state, and local governments, satellite imagery and third-party data providers (i.e., commercial vendors), it determined that only 38 percent of housing units required in-field address canvassing, which resulted in substantial cost savings.

Second, the Census Bureau took steps to optimize household responses to its questionnaire. This year, for the first time, households can respond on the Internet or by telephone in addition to using the mail. Online forms are available in 12 languages. Households can respond online any time from anywhere.

In those areas where there is low Internet connectivity or people are less likely to use the Internet, the Census Bureau is encouraging people to use the phone.

The Census Bureau is also advertising, relying heavily on the use of digital media to target hard to reach audiences. It is working with government and non-profit partners to encourage participation.

According to the Operational Plan, it costs significantly less to process a response provided via the Internet, over the telephone, or through the mail than it does to send a fieldworker to someone’s home to collect a response.

Third, the Census Bureau will use the most cost-effective strategies to count those who do not respond. Rather than relying exclusively on field workers, especially in cases of difficult to reach households, the Census Bureau will use high quality trusted data from government administrative records and third-party sources for the enumeration.

Data that households have already shared with other agencies, like the United States Postal Service, the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, can be used to identify vacant and non-existent housing units as well as non-responding occupied housing units. The latter will be removed from the non-response followup workload if several attempts to contact by mail or in-person fail. Data can also be used to tailor work assignments related to best time of day for field workers to contact households.

A reduced number of visits will lead to significant cost savings, the Operational Plan states.

Lastly, field operations for the 2020 Census will be reengineered. The majority of fieldworkers will use mobile devices for collecting data and will be able to work remotely. Operations such as recruiting, training, and payroll will be automated, reducing the time required for these activities.

New operational control centers will rely on automation to manage most of the fieldwork, enabling more efficient case assignment, and a reduction in the number of physical offices.

In general, a streamlined operation and management structure is expected to increase productivity and save costs, the Operational Plan states.

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a four-week shutdown of Census Bureau offices from mid-March to mid-April. That necessitated major adjustments to the time frame for collecting, processing, and reporting Census 2020 data.

The original deadline for filling out questionnaires has been moved from July 31 to October 31. The period for census enumerators to follow up with non-responders and interview households, originally scheduled to take place from May 13 through July 31, is now scheduled to take place from August 11 through October 31.

Apportionment counts originally scheduled to be delivered to the President by December 31 will now be delivered by April 30, 2021. Redistricting counts originally scheduled to be delivered to the states by April 1, 2021 will now be delivered by July 31, 2021.

Note: People who do not live in traditional housing units, such as group quarters (e.g., dormitories, prisons, nursing homes) or people experiencing homelessness, will be counted in other census data collection operations.

Florida nears 100,000 virus cases

It was more of the same with the release of Sunday’s COVID-19 numbers by the Florida Department of Health. There were 3,494 new cases recorded, bringing the state total to 97,971. There were 17 more deaths attributed to the coronavirus, as the state total climbed to 3,161.

The state is following the pattern of other recently opened states in seeing many of the new cases in younger people. The median age of those with COVID-19 has dropped to 44. There hasve been 76 deaths attributed to COVID-19 in those 44 years or younger, with the remaining 3,085 in those 45 and over.

The positive percentage in new cases was once again near 12% and the state’s overall percentage has climbed to 6.1%.

Highlands County saw a significant increase in cases, jumping 11 to 226. The county was also a bit of a departure in younger people testing positive, as the median age of new cases the past two days has been 48 and 58. These came after three straight days with a median age of 25 or less.

The 10th death in the county due to the virus was counted and there have now been 49 hospitalizations. Nine of the 20 new cases over the past two days have been classified as having resulted from direct contact with a confirmed case.

It was a mixed bag for surrounding counties, as Glades County saw an increase of 21 cases to climb to 142 after having held flat for several days. DeSoto County saw an increase of 11 to stand at 450 cases and Hardee County jumped 17 cases to sit at 289. Okeechobee County saw five new cases to bring its total to 245.

As has frequently been the case, the spike in Florida’s state numbers can be attributed to several counties, as Dade saw 710 new cases, with Orange County increasing 345 cases and Broward County seeing an increase of 318.

Hillsborough County saw 261 new cases, Palm Beach County had an increase of 248, Pinnelas saw 229 additional cases and Duval County climbed 207.

The median age in Hillsborough County has been 36 or younger for the past 11 days, while Dade has been between 39 and 43 the past nine days. Orange County has seen a median age of 33 or younger every day for the past two weeks. Broward County has also seen a daily median age of less than 40 each day for the past two weeks, as younger people are getting out more with the eased restrictions.

According to Johns Hopkins, the count in the United States was 2.27 million, which has resulted in 119,854 deaths, with the global count at 8.84 million and 465,475 deaths.

Free testing will take place twice this week at the Highlands County office of FDOH, 8:30-11:30 a.m., today and Friday at 7205 South George Blvd. in Sebring.

Registration is required by calling 863-386-6040.

Anyone who has or develops symptoms before receiving test results should contact their healthcare provider or call FDOH at 863-386-6040 to schedule an appointment.

For more information on COVID-19, visit floridahealthcovid19.gov. In Highlands County, call 863-402-6800 or text hccovid to 888777.

Taylor charged with rape, burglary

AVON PARK — Highlands County sheriff’s deputies have arrested an Avon Park man with charges stemming from a reported rape in January.

Rickey Wendell Taylor, 30, stands accused of sexual assault and burglary with assault and battery after genetic evidence linked him to the Jan. 12 incident.

He is being held in the Highlands County Jail in lieu of $102,000 bond.

Taylor has denied having sex with the 32-year-old victim, but lab tests revealed that DNA taken from her was 700 billion times more likely to have come from Taylor than any other person, according to a release from the Sheriff’s Office.

Taylor was also charged with resisting arrest after allegedly running from deputies when they tried to take him into custody last Wednesday.

The victim told deputies that on Jan. 12, she and a friend, whose name was redacted from reports, went to a club in Winter Haven.

The victim told deputies she had too much to drink, and remembered lying down in her friend’s back seat and falling asleep.

She awoke to find herself at her house and Taylor there with her and her friend.

According to reports, she said Taylor and her friend helped her get out of the car and get into the house.

She was in her bedroom, getting ready to go to sleep but had to use the bathroom, reports said, then went to bed.

The friend reportedly told deputies they both left the house, but then she saw the victims hair extensions in her back seat.

She asked Taylor if he locked the victim’s door, and Taylor said he hadn’t, so the friend asked him to put the extensions back in the house and then lock the door on his way out.

The friend waited until Taylor came out of the house, and asked him if he wanted a ride home.

He told her he didn’t, so she drove home, reports said.

The victim told deputies that she woke up later in her bathtub. Taylor was bathing her, and she didn’t understand why he was there, reports said.

Taylor eventually got her out of the tub and walked her to her bed. The victim remembered being on the bed, lying on her stomach, and being dried off with a towel.

While being dried, she remembered feeling the feeling of someone having sex with her, reports said. She told deputies that she felt like she kept telling Taylor, “No,” but didn’t know if her words were coming out.

She kept slipping in and out of consciousness, reports said, and when she woke up fully, Taylor was no longer there.

That’s when she called law enforcement to report a sexual battery.

The victim was taken to AdventHealth Sebring for a sexual assault examination.

According to reports, investigators spoke with Taylor several times over the phone, but he frequently refused to meet in person for an interview.

Law enforcement obtained buccal swabs from Taylor on May 2, and Taylor repeated then that he did not want to give a statement, reports said.

On June 5, investigators heard back from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement laboratory, which confirmed that the mixed DNA samples from both the victim and Taylor were, according to reports, 700 billion times more likely to occur than if taken from the victim and any other random individual.