Health official asks for help in spreading message: Stay 6 feet apart and wear masks

OKEECHOBEE — How can the health department get everyone in Okeechobee to observe the CDC recommendations for preventing the spread of the COVID-19 virus?

“I stand before you much like I did back in March,” Tiffany Collins of the Okeechobee County Health Department told the county commissioners at their July 30 meeting.

“My message hasn’t changed,” she said. “The best that you can do is to stay six feet away from someone and to wear a mask.

“Our numbers continue to grow,” she said. “We see those mitigation numbers are not being followed.”

Collins praised businesses that have put mandates in place requiring customers to wear masks, “so there is somebody other than the health care industry to saying ‘we’ve had enough and we want this to end.’

“What should we do differently?” she asked the commissioners. She said people have asked for more testing for those who do not have symptoms, but when they scheduled an open testing event that could have tested up to 500 people, only about half that number showed up.

Of those tested at that event, 60 were COVID-19 positive, she added.

“We are in uncharted times,” said Vice Chairman David Hazellief. “We were encouraging people to wear masks. In the county buildings we require them.”

“I was disappointed in community response to the testing,” said Commissioner Kelly Owens. She asked if they could do more to publicize testing events that are free and open to those without symptoms.

“A single mother called two days ago wanting to get a test,” said Commissioner Brad Goodbread. “She was coughing at her work. They told her to leave. They said, ‘Don’t come back without a negative COVID test.’

“She called all over and couldn’t find a place to do that.”

He said tests at CVS drugstores require an appointment and take three to four days for a result. He said the woman called the health department and was disappointed. She called doctors but could not afford their testing fees.

Commissioner Byrant Culpepper said he was not wearing a mask previously, but he has changed his attitude. “I am wearing a mask everywhere I go now, as a courtesy, just to show that I do care and this board does care about other people,” he said.

Some people don’t pay attention to it until it affects their family, said Goodbread. He said that a particular concern of his are the “COVID parties” where people just don’t care.

Collins said other rural counties have testing because the county is helping to fund it. She said they are using dollars from their CARES Act grants to help pay for the tests and assigning EMTs to help with the testing.

She said she will continue to ask the state for more testing help. The county lost a chance for a visit from a mobile testing unit that could have tested 1,000 people a day, she explained, because there was a conflict for the venue the state wanted to use. Instead, it went to DeSoto County.

“I’m now fighting my health counterparts in the region for resources,” she said.

Goodbread said there are other places besides the Agri-Civic Center — some of them privately owned — that could have been used as drive-thru testing sites. “We have places to do it. If you’ve got 1,000 units, we’ve got a place for it,” he said. “Please don’t turn down something like that.”

Collins said those who test positive need to stay home and not spread the virus to others. Anyone who is sick should stay home, she added.

She said the Florida Department of Health dashboard listed three deaths in Okeechobee County on July 29 and went back down to two deaths on July 30 due to a lab error.

“The third individual is not on the dashboard anymore,” she explained. “It happened to be a lab reporting error. It was an individual in a different county with the exact same name and date of birth as an individual in our county who passed away.”

She said there have been other COVID-related deaths in Okeechobee County that will be posted to the state website. “They are waiting on the death certificates,” she explained.

Collins said if you want to get an antibody test, you should be tested between one to three weeks after you were exposed.

She said she is continuing to work with the school district of Okeechobee County on its reopening plan.

However, with newly formed Tropical Storm Isaias approaching, she said they will not open a shelter inside the health department this year.

Culpepper noted people are getting more creative with their masks. “Some of the masks I have seen, I crack up!” he said. “It gives us a little better attitude toward it and helps people accept wearing the masks.”

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