Precautions urged by BOCC to control COVID-19

LaBELLE – The number of positive COVID-19 cases, and the conditions surrounding that data, were the main topics during the regular meeting of the Hendry County Board of County Commissioners, held April 28, in the Hendry County Courthouse.

Physically present in the chambers were Chairman Mitchell Wills, County Administrator Jennifer Davis, County Attorney Mark Lapp, and Ad Interim Clerk Kimberly Barrineau. Present for the meeting via phone were Vice Chair Emma Byrd, Commissioner Darrell Harris, Commissioner Michael Swindle, Commissioner Karson Turner, Public Works Director Shane Parker, and Florida Department of Health Officer Joseph D. Pepe, Ed. D., MSA.

The health department has been able to distribute 15,000 gloves, 10,000 surgical masks, 3000 N95s, almost 2000 face shields, and 2000 shoe covers to local hospitals and medical professionals. Dr. Pepe said they have ramped up the number of tests they have administered, especially in local nursing homes. He said about seven hundred people have been tested so far, with hundreds of results pending.

Dr. Pepe said as of April 29, there were 72 positive test results in Hendry County. He said most can be traced back to four main clusters. Outside of these four main areas of concern, he reported 13-14 of the positive results were general public. He said they are expecting the return of test results from two of those main clusters within the next two days. He expects there to be more positive cases, due to the bulk of the testing occurring within these main areas of concern.

Also, while it has been reported that 14 individuals have recovered and been cleared by the Florida Department of Health and are no longer required to be under isolation, it was noted that most other counties are not reporting their recovery rates. Dr. Pepe replied that he believes reporting a recovery rate benefits the community psychologically, as it paints a more optimistic picture.

Dr. Pepe also reported they are having to manually track recovery, due to the virus shedding at different lengths of time in different patients. He also mentioned he has read reports, from China, where there are cases that show the virus can shed for as long as 30 days or more. This means the contagious period can vary greatly.

Commissioner Turner expressed concern regarding painting too optimistic of a picture, when length of time that shedding of the virus occurs can be so variable and unknown. His concern was based in the worry that the public may think that recommendations that have been working to flatten the curve such as social distancing, staying at home, and hand washing may not be as necessary. He stressed the importance of continuing to promote the efficacy and serious of these preventative measures.

The board seemed to agree, but noted that since most of the positive cases could be traced back to four clusters, the overall picture was not at grim as it is in neighboring counties with extreme numbers, like Palm Beach County. It was noted by Dr. Pepe that Glades County has had lower numbers, due to both lack of population density and absence of proximity to counties with higher numbers.

“I think the proximity to Palm Beach County is absolutely having a massive impact onto our outcome,” said Dr. Pepe.

“We don’t need to give the sense that this thing is over, but we do need to give them the sense that this is where most of the cases are,” replied Chairman Wills. He went on, “We don’t need to fuel fear. We need to fuel knowledge. The public needs to know, rather than be afraid of every corner they walk around.”

“I think our county is poised to have a safe recovery, so long as we provide that education to our employers and our retailers and all those service industry folks, so that they can safely get their employees back to work. But more importantly, we really need to reinforce to each other that the social distancing and staying home when you’re sick, and the hand washing, and all the messages that we’ve been pushing our since day one still continue,” Dr. Pepe said.

“We’re only as safe as our community supports us, and we need their help to help each other… and I think as American as that could be, that we pull together as a nation to help each other and protect each other,” Dr. Pepe said, “I think we’re going through a major culture shift and a paradigm shift, where we’re now thinking through a new normal as far as how we can impact and influence each ourselves and our lives.” He added that the new normal may include wearing a mask when sick, a practice that is very common in some other Asian countries.

“The county’s interest is not just to get you back to work, it’s to get you back to work safely,” said Chairman Wills.

There was a longer than normal pause for public comment, as comments had to be called in on a particular phone line. While waiting, Commissioner Harris reported that his sister had tested positive for the virus, but was doing a bit better.

Commissioner Turner asked if the county had been able to conduct business as usual, particularly for issuing permits and conducting inspections. Ms. Davis replied that they were restricting public entry to the lobby, but that they were open for business and had been processing permits and performing inspections.

“We have been very busy. Also, in our conversations with the cities, they have been very busy. We are doing it differently, obviously, but we are still rockin’ and rollin’.” She said they seem to be even busier than usual, as far as permits, etc. since the stay at home orders had been issued.

The commissioners each expressed their gratitude for everyone who had been working through this pandemic especially a safety or medical capacity, as well as in the service industry, etc. They also thanked Dr. Pepe, and his team, for their vigilance in gathering and providing current data, and working to keep Hendry County as safe and healthy as they can.

The County commission normally meets twice each month, at p.m., and currently have been broadcast live and attended by public by phone, due to the CDC’s safety guidelines and orders by Gov. Ron DeSantis that made virtual meetings possible, during the pandemic. Next month’s meeting details are yet to be determined, pending orders announced by Gov. DeSantis. The governor’s newest orders are expected to be issued April 29.

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