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00000177-b32b-d5f4-a5ff-bbfb6e660000Here is the information you need to know about COVID-19 in Northwest Florida. We will keep this post updated with the latest information from local, and statewide agencies. For inforamtion from Centers for Disease Control and prevention: cdc.gov/coronavirusFor updates on Florida cases of coronavirus, visit the FDOH dashboard.The COVID-19 call center is available at 24/7 at 1-866-779-6121

Okaloosa's COVID Committee To Recommend Mask Mandate

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The Okaloosa County COVID-19 Advisory committee will be recommending a mask mandate to commissioners next week. 

During a Zoom meeting Friday morning, the committee, made up of physicians and healthcare professionals, unanimously voted on the recommendation that masks be required when social distancing is not possible. 

“I feel like for the first time we’ve done something really productive,” said the committee chairperson, Dr. Deborah Simpkin. 

Without a state order, local governments have been left to grapple with the decision of issuing mandates, which has become fodder for political arguments over constitutional rights. Dr. Simpkin said a mask mandate would be no different than smoking bans or seatbelt requirements. 

“The virus is causing the deaths of a lot of people,” she said. “I get upset as a physician because I have no control over that.” 

Last month the City of Pensacola and City of Gulf Breeze issued mask mandates. Earlier this week, Walton County commissioners decided to wait on taking any action on masks until they read a report from Assistant County Attorney Heather Christmann. Milton’s city council rescinded their own mask mandate days after Mayor Heather Lindsay issued it in June. 

As the state’s number of COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to rise, so do Okaloosa’s. Dr. Karen Chapman, director of the Florida Department of Health in Okaloosa County said Okaloosa is seeing close to 90 cases per day.

“We continue to move in the wrong direction,” she said. “The number of positive cases continues to rise.”

The infection rate is also cause for concern, Dr. Chapman said. She said currently about two people get infected for every positive case in Okaloosa County. But it’s likely an underestimation since not everyone is honest with contact tracers about the number of people they’re around. 

“It’s somewhat frustrating,” she said. 

Research from University of California finds that wearing a mask can reduce the rate of infection for the wearer by 65%. Earlier this week, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said the United States could get the spread of COVID-19 under control within weeks if everyone were wearing masks. 

Major retailers such as Walmart, Target, and Publix have issued mask mandates for customers. Essential employees at such stores have already been wearing masks. 

Fort Walton Beach resident Taylor Kennedy was the lone public comment at Friday’s meeting. She had one thought on her mind: essential workers. Namely, one essential worker, 26-year-old Desi’rae Wysocki-McIntosh who died Monday of COVID-19, according to the medical examiner’s office. 

Kennedy regularly saw Desi’rae when she’d walk to her nearby Tom Thumb on Florence Avenue in Fort Walton Beach. On July 6, she noticed Desi’rae was feeling ill and experiencing shortness of breath. She told Kennedy she had already been to the emergency room and was told she had pneumonia. 

“She couldn’t get anyone to cover her shift,” she said. “She was afraid to lose her job.”

After Desi’rae’s death, Kennedy hosted a small vigil at the Tom Thumb and she’s been sharing her story online with the hashtag #DesiWasEssential. She said Desi’rae’s story put into perspective what essential workers risk — even those outside of the healthcare profession. 

“There should be a mask mandate so essential workers don’t feel like they have to choose between bills and their lives,” she said. 

At the advisory meeting, she had the same message, and asked the committee to consider a mask mandate.  

“There shouldn’t be a stigma behind it,” Kennedy told the committee. “It’s telling somebody next to you, no matter what your politics are, no matter where you’re from I care about your health. And I’d like for people to do that for Desi.”