Commissioners hear reports on increase in COVID-19 cases in Walton County

By DOTTY NIST

“The train has left the track,” Florida Department of Health (FDOH) in Walton County Administrator Holly Holt stated in a July 28 update on the COVID-19 situation in the county.

Holt gave a COVID-19 report at the regular Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting on that date at the Walton County Courthouse. This was followed by Roger Hall, president of Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital on the Emerald Coast, providing an update on the situation with regard to the virus, focusing mainly on the Miramar Beach-area hospital.

Holt provided a total number of 1,066 people testing positive for COVID-19 in Walton County and 8,331 testing negative as of July 27. Of the positives, 972 were identified as Walton County residents and 94 as non-residents of the county.

Holt said that currently there were 12 people hospitalized for COVID-19 in Walton County, six of those being Walton County residents.

She noted that there had been 12 deaths from the virus in Walton County, with the most recent of those having taken place on July 24. The latter was identified as an 89-year-old who passed away in a long-term care facility.

Comparing the July 28 report with the one she had provided to the BCC two weeks earlier on July 14, Holt said the total number of tests done at that time had been 6,610, with 622 people having tested positive for the virus.

She reported the total number of positives for the state at 432,747.

“We are seeing our positives all across the county,” Holt said.

She explained that much testing had been done over the past month by FDOH in Walton County partnering with other entities. This included, Holt said, two drive-through testing events for the month in which 950 people were tested. The remainder of the testing, she noted, was done at the FDOH facility in south Walton County, at their DeFuniak Springs facility and in Paxton, with additional testing conducted by private health care providers.

Holt clarified that testing in Walton County is not limited to county residents but is available to people regardless of place of residence, although the majority of those tested are from Walton County. Walton County residents are being tested in other counties and vice versa, she reported. “We’re working as a group to test our individuals in the Panhandle,” she said of the FDOH and its partners.

District 3 Commissioner Melanie Nipper asked if a number was available for people who are symptomatic for the virus. Holt responded that this was not available but that people being tested were being asked if they were experiencing symptoms.

Holt commented that the state has recently provided additional resources (personnel) to the FDOH in Walton County for contact tracing. She indicated that this tracing is undertaken in connection with each positive case.

She reported a change in recommendations from the state surgeon general. The recommendation to limit social gathering to a number of no more than 50 persons had been modified to one of limiting these gatherings to no more than 10 persons.

Hall, noting that he would be semi-retiring (after a 30-year career in the health care field) on Aug. 1, spoke to the commissioners next.

He reported 14 patients in Sacred Heart on the Emerald Coast with COVID-19 as of the day of the meeting. He told the commissioners that ICU was full and that two patients were on ventilators.

Hall contrasted the current number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital with the number from two weeks ago (eight patients) and with the average number from March to two weeks ago (four patients average). He explained that the hospital had not had to put COVID-19 patients on ventilators until “just this week.”

He reported that the hospital tests patients for the virus before they go in for surgery, and that every week it has been necessary to “change doing surgery” because of some of these patients testing positive, although they are not showing symptoms. Hall indicated that this has also been the case with women coming to the hospital to deliver babies.

He assessed the impact of the virus on the hospital as “dramatically different” over recent weeks and a factor that has increased costs for the hospital.

In response to a question about the hospital’s ICU, Hall reported that there were six patients in the ICU, four of whom were COVID-19 patients and two of whom were on ventilators. He did not have information at hand on any of these patients’ place of residence but said that he could get this information for the officials.

Asked if the hospital has a surge plan, Hall responded in the affirmative. It was clarified that surge plans were the responsibility of each hospital and that the decision to implement them is at the discretion of the hospital.

Asked how many ICU beds Sacred Heart on the Emerald Coast could have with a surge plan, Hall responded that the hospital could surge to approximately 15 ICU beds.

Directing a question to Holt, County Commission Chairman Bill Chapman asked about the number of COVID-19 deaths in the county that had occurred in long-term care settings versus community death.

She responded that 11 of the deaths had been in long-term care settings and that one death had been considered a “community-acquired COVID-19 death.”

Asked about contact tracing related to the community death, Holt responded that tracing is being conducted in connection with this case as it is with all positive cases. She told the commissioners that she and her staff are working very hard with this tracing.

In response to another question, Holt said the FDOH in Walton County is continuing to try to obtain rapid tests for COVID-19, but she added that indications were that it could be September or October before they were able to obtain these tests. Tests being done by the agency are polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, for which 10 days or more may be required for results to be obtained.

As of Aug. 3, the total number of Florida COVID-19 cases had increased to 491,884. The number of Walton County COVID-19 cases was reported as 1,256, and an additional COVID-19 death was confirmed. The latter was a community death, a 47-year old male, according to the FDOH in Walton County.