“This has been a challenging event for public health,” Paul Myers, administrator for the Florida Department of Health in Alachua County told county commissioners as he delivered a report on April 14th.
“As we address really a novel pathogen,” Myers said, “we learn something new about (it) on a daily basis.”
And then he delivered the good news: Because of the early action of emphasizing social distancing and ramping up testing, Alachua County continues to be linear in progression of COVID-19 cases and not exponential. And that linear progression seems to have reached a plateau, according to Myers who said he is constantly checking numbers.
As of April 14th the positivity rate of testing in the county has dropped from 6 percent to 5 percent, Myers reported.
“It’s somewhat of a plateau, but not a downward trend that we are looking for,” he added.
“We have reached a pretty steady state and that’s not surprising given our aggressive level of testing and of our outreach,” Myers explained.
Out of 67 counties Alachua County once ranked number one per capita in cases (per 1,000 population) but as of April 14th Alachua County has moved to 17th.
“We had more cases earlier on than similar (size) counties,” Myers said.
Those patients were isolated and then contact tracing was implemented. So far, the county has quarantined more than 400 people and Myers noted that over time, “the number of contacts per case was higher than it is today,” meaning that because people are practicing social distancing, they are coming into contact with less people.
Some key initial events that have helped Alachua County limit the spread of COVID-19 according to Myers are the increase in awareness of the community that has taken social distancing to heart and the distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) to local hospitals, long-term care facilities, nursing homes, county and municipal EMS, law enforcement, RTS, GRU and county offices.
Myers said the county had been stockpiling PPE for 5 to 10 years ever since the H1N1 outbreak.
That PPE distribution included 140,175 N95 masks, thousands of gowns, face shields and more.
State and federal assets (PPE) account for just 10 percent of what has been distributed, Myers said.
“Very early on we pushed the assets out, and that has been key in slowing the spread and protecting essential workers.”
Now Myers is focusing on any possible surge in cases that might happen.
Hospitalization rates have been consistent between 10 and 15 percent of total number of cases, he reported.
“At this point we’re not seeing a dramatic increase in hospitalizations,” he said and attributed that to the age distribution of the county.
“Alachua County has the largest demographic of 15 to 24 year-olds in the state,” Myers said. “Hence why the data reveals more cases in the younger population. That may contribute to why we have not seen any deaths. We hope that trend continues.”
The commission said they will look to reports about the status of local hospitals when making decisions to amend the emergency order that has been credited with slowing the spread of the virus.
“Our hospital systems are in good shape,” Myers said. “And we continue to communicate with the VA and North Florida and with Shands for something we hope that never comes and that’s a surge on our hospital system.”
As of close of business on April 13th there were 20,595 confirmed cases in Florida, 196,812 tests completed, 2,826 hospitalizations and 500 deaths.
For Alachua County there were 192 confirmed cases, 4,100 tests completed, 25 hospitalizations and zero deaths reported.
Myers reminded the commission that the first positive case was reported on March 13th and said the slow progression of the virus can also be attributed to the amount of testing happening.
“We test more in Alachua County per capita than any other county in the state of Florida,” Myers said.
“No person in Alachua County who has met testing criteria has been denied a test.”
Myers said early on in the pandemic there was a lack of testing supplies nationwide and globally.
“We figured out how to leverage our state lab with our commercial lab and now the hospitals are up and testing so we continue to do a lot of testing in Alachua County and we are number one."
Myers said he continues to monitor data for a potential surge, and that he is keeping a close eye on The Villages retirement community south of Gainesville.
“I am very confident dealing with Alachua County but have concern with The Villages,” he said. “If they see an uptick in cases, that could put a strain on the system.”
“I look at these numbers every day,” he said about available hospital beds in Alachua County . Currently more than 40 percent capacity ICU beds are left out of 1,800 beds, he said, meaning 700 beds in ICU are available out of 1,800 beds total.
Commissioner Ken Cornell asked Myers about monitoring the senior living facilities and the jails.
“Starting two weeks ago we developed rapid response teams for those,” Myers said, and added that the key is to discover asymptomatic healthcare workers and to quarantine them.
Commission Chair Hutchinson asked Myers if the county could help the health department in any way.
“Any limiting factor that county commission should address with resources?,” he asked.
“Running short on PPE,” Myers responded. “We have burned through it,” he said and added that the county has requests in to the state operations center but everyone on the globe is requesting PPE.