County offices finds ways to keep work going

OKEECHOBEE — The COVID-19 crisis again topped the agenda at the Okeechobee County Commission meeting on Thursday. As of the March 26 report from the Florida Department of Health, Okeechobee County has no confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus.

The commissioners voted unanimously to extend the Local State of Emergency for another week.

Fire/Rescue Chief Ralph Franklin, the county’s public safety officer, said the food chain and delivery are working. “They are making deliveries. We are encouraging everybody to buy as normal,” he said.

The fuel supply is good. The ports are open, he continued.

“Forestry is continuing to burn, with reduced authorizations. Part of that is because the weather right now is extremely dry,” he said.

Chief Franklin said the county’s call center for anyone who has questions or needs help is open. The call center is at the library and manned by library staff. The number to call is 863-763-3536. The library has been closed to the public since last week to comply with the state’s recommendations for preventing public gatherings. He said most of the calls have been about library business.

He said the county was able to obtain 42 coolers to help the school board with the student lunch distribution program.

Mitch Smeykal of the Okeechobee Emergency Operations Center said 46 of the state’s 67 counties have positive cases.

“Most of the local stores are still open, and they are still short on paper products,” he said.

Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs said the hospital is burning through their reserve of supplies.

“We have talked to state about this yesterday,” said Mr. Smeykal. “Nursing homes are getting stuff before my first responders. I understand that mission was put in at the state level. But they’re still waiting for stuff to send it down.

“I have explained the urgency,” he continued. “When my first responders have to beg stuff from Home Depot and nursing homes are getting stuff, there’s a problem. They’re not supposed to have anybody coming in. The only people who are supposed to be in there are the staff, so why are you pushing supplies to these facilities when my first responders can’t get supplies?”

When first responders go to an accident, they have no idea if the person involved is positive or negative for COVID-19, and they can’t practice “social distancing.” The first responders have a cricial need for the protective gear, he pointed out.

Health department: ‘Don’t be afraid to call’
Tiffany Collins of the Okeechobee County Health Department said as of Wednesday night there were 66,132 cases of COVID-19 in the United States with 947 deaths related to the virus.

Florida has 1,977 cases and 23 deaths, she said.

She said 90 percent of tests in Florida have come back negative. Forty-six of the state’s 67 counties have confirmed cases.

“We are testing,” Ms. Collins said. In Okeechobee County, 31 persons have been tested with 22 negative and nine pending. She said this does not include patients who are tested by commercial labs. Commercial labs are required to report their results to the Florida Health Department, but there may be a time lag in adding the commercial results to the total from the state labs.

She said the county health department’s top five objectives are:
• Stop the introduction of virus into the community;
• Protect the elderly;
• Leverage our testing capabilities;
• Promote social distancing messaging to the community; and,
• Prepare for a medical surge.

The governor’s public health advisory recommends individuals over the age of 65 and all high risk individuals of any age remain in their residence and limit the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Ms. Collins stated that all business owners should allow employees to work from home to the extent that it can be accomplished, with the goal to reduce the on-site workforce to 50 percent capacity.

The Florida Department of Health has expanded testing guidance for health care workers and first responders, she said.
“Any health care worker or first responder who has a fever or respiratory illness, you can call us and we can test you for COVID-19,” she said. The number to call is 863-462-5800.

She said the Fred Brown Center will start testing for COVID-19 on Monday. Starting today, you can call them and make an appointment to be evaluated and screened for COVID-19

Starting Monday, they will set you up with what’s called a telehealth screening. If you meet the guidelines, they will give you an appointment for testing, she explained.

“It is NOT a mass drive through,” Ms. Collins said. She said even Broward County, which has drive-thru testing, requires patient screening.

“Screening criteria is changing; it is being expanded,” she said. If you think you might have been exposed, call the health department.

“Call the health department. Don’t be afraid,” she said, but “don’t be upset if you don’t meet the criteria.

“If you feel you have symptoms, regardless of your travel history, if you have underlying medical conditions, give us a call or call your medical provider,” she said.

For the purpose of the screenings, fever is defined as 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. If you have less than 100.4 F, you do not meet the criteria for the fever.

County Administrator Robbie Chartier said all of the county departments are working, but they are not open to the public.

“Buildings are closed to the public, but we have put out accessibility by phone and email,” she explained. County offices are also setting up drop boxes.

There are no code magistrate, planning or construction industry licensing board meetings through April.

Constitutional officers are also using drop boxes, Ms. Chartier said.

Commissioner David Hazellief thanked all county employees for continuing to do business as best they can.

“They are manning up, ‘womaning’ up, saying we are going to get through this. I am proud of all of them,” he said. “With modern technology we have today, we can keep everything going. We’ve got to set an example and let’s do the best we can. We’re going to get through this.”

County office updates
• Okeechobee Community Development Department: The Okeechobee County Community Development Department will operate during regular business hours of 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. but the lobby will be closed to the public.

• Okeechobee Building Permit Applications: Building permit applications and supplemental materials may be placed in a drop box outside the front door. The application materials will be retrieved by department staff throughout the day and processed. Please note that Florida State Statute requires that owner/builder permit applications must be submitted in person. If you are a property owner submitting an owner/builder permit application, please call 863-763-5548 to arrange a time to submit your application. Contractors may also submit permit applications for mechanical, electric and roof permits electronicallythrough e-TRAKiT (www.okeechobeetrakit.com)
Building permit applications and associated materials may also be submitted by US Mail, UPS or FedEx.

• Okeechobee Inspections: The procedure to schedule inspections will not change. Contractors and owner/builders may schedule required inspections by phone at 863-763-5548 (please have the permit number ready). Contractors may also schedule inspections through e-TRAKiT (okeechobeetrakit.com). Interior inspections for occupied or recently occupied residences will not be conducted at this time. Contractors scheduling inspections for interior electric and air conditioning work must call to discuss options with an inspector.

• Okeechobee Contractor Licensing: Materials to update and register contractor licenses may be submitted by the drop box, US Mail, UPS,FedEx or by email to contractorlicensing@co.okeechobee.fl.us

• Okeechobee Planning and Zoning: Planning and zoning staff will be available by phone during regular office hours of 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Applications for land use changes can be submitted in the drop box during regular office hours. Applications will be processed but public hearing dates have not yet been determined. Applications for site plan review can be submitted in the drop box during regular office hours. Applications will be processed but Technical Review Committee meeting dates have not yet been determined.

• Okeechobee Licensing Board, Code Enforcement Magistrate and Planning Board: All meetings of the Construction Industry Licensing Board, Code Enforcement Special Magistrate and Planning Board/Board of Adjustments and Appeals are canceled at least through April 30.

• Tax Collector’s Office: The tax collector’s office suspended all services through lobbies and drive-thru. Staff can assist over the phone; call 863-763-3421. There is a drop box in the back of the building as well. Driver’s license and vehicles can be renewed online at GoRenew.com, You can also pay your property tax online at okeechobeecountytaxcollector.com.

• Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission: Updates are online at MyFWC.com. If you have any questions or concerns, call the FWC office at 863-763-3421.

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