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County commission votes to look at stronger enforcement of mask mandate

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

Paul Myers, Administrator for the Florida Department of Health in Alachua County, brought a reassuring message about COVID-19 to the Alachua County Commission today, but commissioners were “blown away” by the contrast between his information and what they’ve been seeing on national news broadcasts.

Most of the data presented was essentially the same as we present in our daily update, so we won’t repeat it here. The commission had also asked Myers to compare the data from counties that had mask ordinances and counties that didn’t, but Myers said there are so many factors that go into the spread of COVID-19 that he couldn’t draw any conclusions: “It was almost impossible for us to make any sort of p-value that was significant for those counties that had a mask ordinance and those that didn’t.”

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He said that the turnaround time for test results is becoming a big factor in trying to control the spread locally via contact tracing. People who are classified as high-priority, including those in long-term care, healthcare workers, first responders, and people who are symptomatic, can get results in 24 hours (this used to be 12 hours), but non-priority tests (primarily people who are asymptomatic) can take up to 14 days.

The high number of tests being performed, combined with the high turnaround, is making contact tracing considerably less useful. Given that COVID-19 has a 2-to-14-day incubation, by the time tests come back after an additional 14-day turnaround, the person has probably already moved through any infectious period. Myers also said that contact tracing is voluntary, so the quality of responses varies. Many people aren’t willing to give information about the people they’ve been in contact with.

Commissioner Mike Byerly asked if the county should be discouraging “curious-type” testing, and Myers acknowledged that we are testing a lot of “worried well.”

Myers said the bottom line is, “If you’re ill, you’ve got to stay at home… if you’re asymptomatic and just curious, I’d recommend not getting tested.” He said about 80% of the people who are tested are asymptomatic at the time of the test and that contact tracing of asymptomatic people is “of little value.”

Myers went on to say, “It’s all about distance; it’s all about not having those close interactions, especially indoors, in poorly-ventilated areas.”

Myers also spoke about the current controversy on reopening schools: “Children do very well with this disease.” He said that death and hospitalization rates are near-zero for young people: “Children don’t spread this disease to adults like adults spread it to each other.”

Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler asked him to repeat that, saying she was “blown away” by the information. She said she was “having a hard time reconciling the contrast” between that and what she’s been seeing in the national media about Florida. Myers said, “More kids died from flu last year in the state of Florida than have died from COVID-19”; he acknowledged that we’ve only been tracking COVID for 6 months.

Myers went on to say we’ve been seeing about 50-100 cases per day in Alachua County, mostly between 20 and 30 years old, but we’ve seen “no commensurate rise in hospitalizations.”

Myers went on to talk about hospital availability, saying there are currently 43 COVID patients in intensive care units (ICU) in the county, out of a total ICU capacity of 308 beds. 106 people are hospitalized for COVID, out of a total capacity of 1,635 beds. Most of those are from out of the county; there have only been a total of 104 county residents hospitalized since March.

The commission talked about increasing enforcement of the mask ordinance, including handing out citations (fines) instead of warnings. It was pointed out that code enforcement officials don’t have the ability to detain people to collect identification information for the citation, so they will need the Sheriff’s Office to provide deputies.

The report from staff indicated that they’re seeing mask compliance over 90% where it’s been measured; about half those who aren’t wearing masks have medical excuses, and about half just refuse. Some commissioners questioned how useful it would be to send more personnel just to get those few people to comply, but most felt it was necessary.

The County is currently giving warnings in unincorporated areas of the county and in High Springs, Waldo, and LaCrosse (although they said they haven’t had any reason to go to LaCrosse yet). They discussed expanding enforcement throughout the county, not just in the above areas.

The commission voted unanimously to pass a 5-part motion:

  1. Open Poe Springs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday-Sunday instead of 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday (more days could be possible if grant funding is found).
  2. Ask staff to bring back protocols at the August 3 meeting for issuing citations county-wide for not wearing masks.
  3. Update their recently-passed CARES Act program to change some definitions: a “small” business is 1-25 employees, and a “medium” business is 26-50 employees. In addition, grant recipients must agree to follow the County’s emergency orders in categories 1-6. Funds will be made available to undocumented workers if they are eligible under federal guidelines.
  4. Ratify the second amendment to the Phase 2 order that the Chair implemented at the Sheriff’s request.
  5. Ask Paul Myers to provide them with studies showing that children do not readily spread COVID to adults.

The county commission is on recess until their next meeting on August 3.

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