In her Nov. 15 weekly email, Dr. Karen Chapman, director of the Florida Department of Health-Okaloosa County, said the county was experiencing a “serious outbreak of COVID-19.”
It’s been nearly a month since that email — her last update since she’s been out indefinitely due to an injury — and numbers in the county, and across the Panhandle, are still climbing.
Chapman has been sounding the alarm for masks and social distancing since March. While she hasn’t been invited to a commissioner meeting since July, she’s provided updates to the public in her weekly Key Metrics email.
In the November Key Metrics, Chapman cited the county’s daily increase of cases and the percentage rate of positive tests as concerns. According to the World Health Organization, the target is to remain below 5% for at least 14 days. The state of Florida, and the Panhandle, have remained higher than 5%, sometimes double that. Okaloosa County has also been steadily high. In the past week it’s been around 20%.
Okaloosa has a slightly new board of commissioners — there are two new members with Commissioner Paul Mixon and Vice Chairman Mel Ponder — and the installment of Chairwoman Carolyn Ketchel. But board members said they aren’t planning to take any drastic measures to combat coronavirus in the New Year.
“I believe we have taken far more than the minimum precautions to help protect our residents and visitors,” said Commissioner Trey Goodwin. “It seems unlikely any new restrictions will be appropriate. However, we all must continue to work toward protecting our most at-risk citizens.”
This week, the county has surpassed 10,000 cases. On Nov. 30, Florida Department of Health reported 13 deaths in a single day, but the number reflected certified deaths that occurred throughout November and not overnight, said Commissioner Mixon. Overall, the county has had 176 COVID-related deaths, according to FDOH.
These numbers are of “grave concern,” said Ketchel, who is a medical social worker.
“Like the rest of the country, we are seeing incremental growth in the spread of the virus throughout our community,” she said. “We must do a better job of conveying the message of prevention: mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing until a vaccine is distributed to at least 70% of our population.
“We see the light of hope with the vaccine but folks need to remain vigilant especially during the holidays when everyone longs to be with family and friends.”
Okaloosa commissioners failed to pass a mask mandate in July, and since then Gov. Ron DeSantis has prohibited municipalities from enforcing masks rendering any mandate — past or future — irrelevant. Ketchel brought forth the vote for mandatory masks. When it failed, and the board instead voted to mandate signage about mask requirements at businesses, she said “I’m sad we didn’t do more.”
Covid-19 update for December 10th* - Sources:
ℹ️ https://t.co/LVRv1UVUoU & https://t.co/LrTYCQeLSF
ℹ️ Dashboard at https://t.co/E1FoZlyx9A
*Notes from Public Safety & FL DOH... Of the 2 reported deaths, 1 occurred in late November & 1 in very early December. pic.twitter.com/N6eSwK6Qwx
— Okaloosa County (@OkaloosaCounty) December 10, 2020
As one of the two new faces on the board, Mixon said commissioners took appropriate steps to mitigate the spread of the virus without heading into the “dangerous territory to our freedoms as Americans.”
“At some point, people must use individual responsibility to help prevent the spread and this includes business owners enforcing their own policies with employees and patrons,” he said.
Mixon said he’s had a personal connection to the virus as people he loves have survived it, some have even died. But he says he’s not living in fear and instead leans on his faith.
“I have participated in more funerals this year than any year before, many with COVID, many without, but death is still death,” he said. “I understand COVID to be a thread but the reality is that each one of us at some point will die. If we focused more on how we live, then the issue of taking personal responsibility to ensure the safety of others becomes more about loving others and less about who is telling us what to do.”
Response and support
Regardless of a mandate, health care professionals also continue to promote mask wearing, social distancing and overall good hygiene. And this goes for life after a vaccine, too, said Todd Jackson, chief operating officer at Fort Walton Beach Medical Center. The hospital is one of hundreds in the country that joined to launch the site everymaskup.com to share the importance of safe practices.
“When making holiday plans, consider how they can be modified to reduce the spread of COVID-19 to keep your friends, families, and communities healthy and safe,” he said. “Be sure to review the considerations from the holiday celebrations guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
Commissioners point to other tools the county has used to help the community during the pandemic, such as providing $2.2 million to the Florida Department of Health-Okaloosa County for testing, contact tracing, and preparation of the vaccine, spending $100,000 on a multimedia campaign that is still going to encourage CDC recommendations, redesigning government services to be provided virtually to the public, and purchasing a dedicated Infectious Disease Response ambulance.
Through funding with the federal CARES Act, the county implemented a $6 million local grant program — the largest in Okaloosa history — for businesses, nonprofits and individuals. And $2 million in grant awards will go out this month.
The county’s COVID-19 Advisory Committee dissolved in August, but commissioners say they’ve continued to be in contact with medical experts throughout the pandemic. As chairwoman, Ketchel said she has already approached Dr. Chapman about giving regular updates on COVID-19 in the New Year — something she has not be invited to do for months.
“Doctor Chapman is someone I admire and respect and seek her professional opinion often during this pandemic,” Ketchel said.
Now, eight months into the county’s response to COVID and the focus is on a potential vaccine. The county has already purchased freezers to store vaccines. Vice Chairman Mel Ponder said the county remains in close contact with hospitals, medical experts and partners to “closely monitor new and emerging trends.”
“At this point, our best direction is to stay the course and provide as much support as possible to the coming vaccines,” he said. “I realize we have had flu vaccines for decades and clearly the bug is still here. My hopes are that with the medical advancements taken and development of the upcoming vaccines, the results are different. Either way, we will continue to support the programs which develop better weapons in the fight.”