Health officials say this week’s surge in new coronavirus cases in Central Florida likely is the inevitable infectious fallout they’d warned us about: All those mask-less Memorial Day masses and curious crowds gathered during SpaceX’s historic May 30 return to human spaceflight looks to have been too much too soon.
Even the wave of protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death under a police officer’s knee in Minneapolis are expected to soon present a novel coronavirus toll.
In the wake of rising coronavirus infection numbers and all that not-so-socially distanced activity, health officials are busy scrambling to trace as many people as possible in the highest risk groups that might have come into contact with active COVID-19 cases.
Because of the sheer masses of people that could be involved, health workers say they will be reaching out mainly through phone calls and public education.
But they point out that if Florida is going to remain open for business, such contact tracing, as well as urging people to wear masks and keeping distance from other people, has to be the new normal.
“We do get nervous when they don’t answer their phones, because that means they’re somewhere else,” Dr. Todd Husty, Seminole Counties medical director, said of contact tracing efforts in his county. “There are a lot of telephone calls right now.”
From Seminole County, Brevard’s immediate northwest neighbor, it is only a short drive to Space Coast beaches and other attractions. And Seminole, with 130,000 fewer residents than Brevard, has been hit by COVID-19 about as bad or worse than Brevard.
Seminole reached 976 COVID-19 cases this week, including peaks of 51 cases on Wednesday and 45 cases on both Saturday and Sunday last weekend. Thirteen people in Seminole have died of the disease.
Brevard has lost 16 people to COVID-19, or 3% of the 688 cases. The county saw another 43 COVID-19 cases reported Tuesday and has had a total of 86 people who needed to be hospitalized (12.5% of all cases) since the pandemic began.
And they are not alone. Orange County also got hit hard in the past two weeks, increasing from 41 daily COVID-19 cases two weeks ago to 212 on Wednesday, or 10% of tests that day. Orange reached 3,900 cases on Thursday,
Contact tracing works
According to public health experts, contact tracing, the search for people exposed to novel coronavirus cases, was key to reopening and keeping open businesses and government, to limit the risk of massive waves of new infections.
Husty says contact tracing works and can effectively contain the virus.
Seminole contact tracers help people to get tested for COVID-19 and follow up with multiple calls, ultimately letting them know when they no longer need to self-isolate. More than 90% of people comply with the health department’s guidance, Husty estimates.
“It’s working well, although this new spike has been challenging,” he said.
But some refuse to cooperate, as Husty says his son — who works for Seminole County Fire Department — recently learned as he helped with contact tracing. When he called a case of a 21-year-old female to ask her if she was self-isolating and about her contacts, “she said ‘I don’t have time for this, ‘ ” Husty said, adding, “The sheriff’s office will have a visit today.”
While they use such friendly reminders, rather than heavy-handed tactics for contact tracing, under the governor’s emergency order county emergency managers have legal authority to quarantinepeople sick with COVID-19, Husty said.
Husty says most people they trace are socially responsible, but younger residents are a tougher sell. “Now we have a new age group who’s saying we don’t care anymore,” he said. “They are keeping this damn thing in our community.”
He likens some of the reckless behavior during the pandemic to someone receiving and immediately clicking on one of those infamous virus-containing emails from Nigeria that promises future riches, then forwarding it to others.
According to the Centers for Disease Control’s instructions, public health staff are supposed warn exposed individuals, or “contacts,” of their potential exposure quickly, sensitively and as confidentially as possible. Contacts are only told they may have been exposed, not who might have exposed them.
In Brevard County, Department of Health officials say they are also involved in contract tracing but to what degree is harder to tell because unlike in Seminole County, local officials will only reply to most inquiries via email, often not addressing specifics.
But in late April, FLORIDA TODAY found that in those cases where there was contact tracing, some who got sick and tested positive say the health department in Brevard asked them few, if any, probing questions about their contacts with others, or didn’t call them at all. That flies in the face of what local public health officials asserted throughout the pandemic. Brevard health officials assured that every positive test gets recorded into a state system and is contacted by the county epidemiology department for investigation.
According to public health experts, contact tracing, the search for people exposed to novel coronvirus cases, is a key to reopening the country, state and county safely to limit the risk of a massive wave of new infections.
Both are critical to tempering the expected next wave of infections, epidemiologists say.
But concerns already have arisen among public health experts about whether the investigations in Brevard and elsewhere in Florida will be sufficient to contain a possible next wave of novel coronavirus contagion.
In one email message, Anita Stremmel, assistant Brevard County Health department director, said the Brevard County Health Department currently has nine employees trained to conduct contact tracing and can train more as needed.
“The number of our employees conducting contact tracing varies based on new cases,” she wrote, providing no further details about the process.
A survey by FLORIDA TODAY of the state’s DOH offices found that Brevard’s per capita public health staffing and expenditures is among the lowest in the state. Brevard ranks 44th of 67 counties for public health per capita staffing and 52nd for public health department per capita spending.
“We continue to promote the use of face masks and other actions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including remaining 6 feet apart from other individuals, washing hands frequently, and staying home when sick and when asked to do so by local or state officials and public health authorities,” Stremmel wrote.
Florida is ‘focused’ on tracing
Gov. Ron DeSantis this week said Florida is focusing on tracing, testing and containing the virus among high-risk groups, such as migrant farm workers who live in close quarters, construction workers and other groups more likely to carry the virus but not show symptoms. Often lacking symptoms, those groups can be more likely to spread the disease widely without knowing it.
DeSantis cited Indiantown in Martin County, for example, where 54 (46%) of 118 migrant farm workers tested positive. “These are folks that are living in close confines,” DeSantis said.
But DeSantis downplayed the surge in new cases and said the will move ahead with reopening plans, because the state has ample capacity of intensive care unit beds, ventilators and other resources to respond to a surge in patients.
“We’re not rolling back,” DeSantis said. “We’ve got 6,400 ventilators that are just sitting idle … We’ve been 25-30% vacant (for hospital beds) the whole time. You have be able to have the society function,” he added. “To suppress a lot of working age people at this point, I don’t think would likely be effective.”
DeSantis also points to positive cases in long-term care facilities having dropped from peaks of more than 300 per day last month to just 53 to 194 over the past few weeks, FDOH data shows.
“You’re expanding testing … but you’re also going into now — which the state wasn’t — high-risk environments,” DeSantis said at a press conference Tuesday. “When you look at like these farm workers and those migrant workers … when you’re in those types of conditions, how this thing can really spread broadly.”
DeSantis also has pointed to unwillingness of Floridians to wear masks as playing a role in the recent increase in COVID-19 cases.
Warnings go unheeded
Health officials had warned about Memorial Day crowds. Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, urged on TV talk shows for people to wear masks, social distance, and avoid crowds altogether.
Beach crowds over Memorial Day weekend made headlines, but health officials say the blame for the latest surge in regional COVID-19 infections goes beyond just beaches.
“Our contact tracing and investigations do not indicate that new COVID-19 cases are a result of gatherings on the beach,” Stremmel said via email.
Seminole’ County’s Husty also stops short of blaming beach-goers, instead pointing to crowds in general, especially in closed-in spaces.
“The beach is fairly a safe place to be, as long as we’re not sitting on top of each other,” he said. “I’ve been telling everybody the beach is probably a good place to go, as long as you stay separated.”
While Husty and other public health officials can’t say for certain what caused the region’s recent surge in COVID-19 cases, the timing implicates Memorial Day weekend, followed by the two late May SpaceX launch attempts that returned America to human space flight.
“It takes two to three weeks for it to show itself,” Husty said of the time it takes for mass events to result in a surge in cases.
The SpaceX launch, originally scheduled May 27, scrubbed on the first try but launched May 30. Each launch attempt brought thousands to the Space Coast, where many already had tired of coronavirus dictates of social distancing and mask wearing.
But Husty says those dictates are exactly how citizens in the long-run will regain the freedoms the pandemic suspended.
The next big wave of COVID-19 cases could hit in the two-three week wake of the statewide protests of police brutality, in response to the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer pinned him down with his knee to Floyd’s neck for several minutes. Protests emerged throughout Florida early this month.
“I think we’re predicting that we’re going to see a jump from that also,” Husty said of the protests.
The upward of 80% of people infected to reach so-called “herd immunity” is speculative, he adds. “We don’t know how long immunity lasts for this,” Husty said.
Treatments are improving, he added, but in the meantime, masks, hand-washing and patience will have to do.
“I think the public is over with this virus,” Husty said. “The problem is the virus isn’t over with us.”
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Jim Waymer is environment reporter at FLORIDA TODAY.
Contact Waymer at 321-242-3663
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