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COVID presentation: no secondary transmission in schools, student infections not spreading to the community

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

The Alachua County Commission meeting on September 22 featured an extensive discussion on COVID issues, starting with a presentation from Paul Myers, the Alachua County Administrator for the Florida Department of Health. Most of the presentation featured charts similar to those we publish every day, but he had additional information to share with the commission.

Myers pointed out that while Alachua County’s hospitalization rate is similar to the state as a whole, the percentage of cases resulting in death is about 1/3 of the state’s, and the population mortality rate is also about 1/3 of the state’s. He attributed these differences to Alachua County’s young population (relative to the state’s demographics) and early steps to protect residents in long-term care.

Regarding local COVID deaths, Myers said, “I see the Medical Examiner reports—all of these individuals had underlying health conditions… in the years to come, when the statisticians take a look back and see and they adjust these numbers, I think that’s going to be something that’s gonna be very telling of the story of COVID-19: did you die of it, or did you die with it?”

Commissioner Mike Byerly said, “There’s a different narrative going on nationally. Every time I read about it in my sources, the numbers are probably too low because blah blah blah… When is a person tested for COVID? Is anyone tested post-mortem, or do we only do these tests for people before they die?”

Myers said, “I can tell you definitely: it’s both.”

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Byerly said, “So anyone who dies under circumstances that might even possibly be COVID, they’re tested?”

Myers responded, “I know that people have passed away that were tested.”

Byerly: “If they died and they weren’t tested previously and if it’s not clear why they died, is it typical to do a COVID test these days?”

Myers: “I think so. I think that we’re doing a lot of COVID testing, and people who die from trauma have been excluded from this – for example, car accidents, there was an individual who fell off a roof, that was not counted as a COVID death, even though they tested positive for COVID. But to your question: if you’ve tested positive in the previous 30 days and then you pass away, in that condition, according to the physician or the Medical Examiner, that pre-existing condition was exacerbated by a COVID infection, then you’re counted as a COVID death.”

Myers said that although we’re in the fourth week of in-person schooling, there has been no documented secondary transmission in K-12 schools, meaning that it’s not being spread at schools. 

Regarding the slide on school monitoring, Myers said, “When I say 186 individuals monitored, let me define that a little bit more. Monitored means a symptomatic child has presented to a school nurse or we have received a positive lab result from a private care provider or we have a positive lab result of a child and we’ve identified the contacts, which for our purposes we define as the entire elementary K-5 class, or if they’re in middle or high school, we do the contact tracing to see who that child has been around with significant exposure. So 186 individuals, so far. We’ve had 63 index cases, symptomatic or verified close contact to a positive, and 112 contacts… that’s only about 2 contacts per [index] case, but let me just remind everybody that the vast majority of those index cases were not positive. We were able to rule out the symptoms that they presented with, with a negative test.”

This slide shows the testing in various schools, and Myers said the high number for Hawthorne is because they tested an entire sports team (they hadn’t received the results yet).

“So far, so good. We have not had – and I can’t emphasize this enough – we have not had secondary transmission in our schools. In other words, we haven’t had a teacher spread it to a student or vice versa. We haven’t had students spreading it to students, as of right now.”

Test results have been received for 57 individuals related to schools, with 15 positive results. Of the 35 close contacts to a confirmed positive case, zero tests have come back positive as of September 21.

Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler said the commissioners are getting “blasted” with emails from people who are upset that the commissioners “are holding this community back when we’re doing so well… when we’re hearing 1000 people on their campus tested positive, and our numbers are only at 70 today, it’s really confusing.”

Myers said, “Clearly, this is a population that is not going to get severely ill, so they’re not going to impact our hospital system. That’s number one. We’re not seeing a secondary transmission in our K-12 schools… All I can say is that we’re doing our level best to contain this on the University of Florida campus.”

Myers referred back to a slide that showed that, according to CDC definitions, Alachua County is designated as the highest risk for transmission, and yet we’re not seeing secondary transmission in the K-12 schools. “While we don’t have all the answers, we do have history. Our lessons learned during H1N1, 2009, at least right now, seem to be a similar dynamic. Clearly two different diseases, but a similar dynamic… We’re doing our level best to try and keep that ‘fire’ on campus and not spilling over into the community. And right now, we’re just not seeing it.”

Wheeler said she’s concerned about County employees who have to deal with angry members of the public, especially after a recent incident between codes enforcement and an individual who refused to wear a mask at the Jonesville Publix. 

Myers next showed the number of cases by age during September: 23 in ages 0-4; 25 in ages 5-10; 22 in ages 11-13; 23 in ages 14-17; and 1,615 in ages 18-24. “Clearly being driven by university-aged students; it’s not even close.” 

During a discussion on enforcement of the mask mandate and restrictions on bars and restaurants, Missy Daniels said that codes enforcements officers “have had a really rough week… we’re still at 98% with mask enforcement.” She said they’re finishing up “education” with bars and restaurants and will start enforcement Thursday night. 

County Manager Michele Lieberman said she appreciates the hard work of codes enforcement and said that, especially when they’re enforcing emergency orders, there are always safety concerns. “I hope the Board is always mindful of that when we make these decisions.” She said they could increase the number of staff for codes enforcement if needed. 

Commission Chair Robert Hutchinson said, “I’ll just express my thanks to them and how ridiculous it is that these folks who are very gently enforcing health and safety rules that are well-established to do good have to fear anybody threatening them or accusing them of anything. It’s just ridiculous. Codes enforcement officers deal with some tough situations—junk yard dogs and all kinds of stuff, so it’s ridiculous that they would prefer their own job of dealing with those kinds of hombres instead of the ones that show up outside of a Publix on any given day. It’s a shameful situation right now in this country.”

With little discussion, the commission ratified the most recent Emergency Order dealing with bars and restaurants and another one that allowed them to continue with virtual meetings. 

During public comment on all of the above plus distribution of CARES Act money, several people called in to comment in Spanish, and several more people called in to ask the County to find a way to get money to people who are not in the country legally. The CARES Act money can only be given to citizens, but the City of Gainesville found some other sources of funds to direct toward residents who are not here legally. The callers suggested the County do the same. The County decided to contact the City to get information about their program and see if a similar program could be implemented by the County. 

In an unusual occurrence that could set a precedent, one person who had already called in during public comment on the same item called back in and was allowed to give a second comment because she said she was reading a statement from someone else. 

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