Is anyone in Okeechobee being tested for COVID-19?

Update: Reporter Richard Marion found the testing information on the FDOH website. https://lakeokeechobeenews.com/community-news/six-tested-for-coronavirus-in-okeechobee-county/

OKEECHOBEE — Every day, we hear there are no cases of the virus in Okeechobee, yet people we know and love tell their stories of coughing and fevers and being told they don’t fit the criteria to be tested. Last month, I had a mysterious illness with a terrible cough that kept me up all night for about ten days. I felt horrible. The strange thing was I had no cold symptoms. I was never tested. A friend recently had a high fever and a bad cough. She was not tested. A woman on Facebook said she is desperately ill and begged to be tested, but was told she did not meet the criteria. Another friend was admitted to the hospital with a high fever and a cough and diagnosed with pneumonia this week. Was she tested? Who knows?

Yesterday, I called the health department to ask how many people in Okeechobee had been tested but was told that because of HIPPA, they could not disclose that information. If we knew how many people were tested, we might figure out who had it somehow, so they have decided to only disclose how many people have been tested in the state. When asked how long it takes to get results from a test, I was told she could not tell me that, because it varied depending on where it was sent. I asked if she could give me an estimate, three to five days? Five to ten days? She said she could not tell me that.

At the Okeechobee City Council meeting last night, March 17, the council discussed the way the people react to the cancellations and shut downs. Some believe the Music Fest should have been canceled. Some think the parade should have gone on as planned. Some are self isolating and some are going around town as if life has not changed, because there have been no cases confirmed in Okeechobee.

“Those are the folks that are passing the virus around, any virus,” said Councilman Bobby Keefe. “No offense Mr. Mayor, but you came here this evening with a cold, and I’m already like, ‘Crap!’ No Offense. That’s how we operate. We send our kids to school sick, because I don’t want you to lose out on that attendance award at the end of the year, but yet, your kid just got three other kids sick.”

Council member Monica Clark expressed her dissatisfaction with the way testing is being handled in Okeechobee. She said, “We’re not going to have any confirmed cases of it if we’re not testing.”

Okeechobee Health Department Administrator Tiffany Collins said Okeechobee is testing, but Council member Clark said she called the health department two weeks ago and was told the only place you could be tested in Okeechobee County was at the hospital emergency room if you were a patient.

Ms. Collins said the health department enacted its emergency team on January 28, and that was the day they were able to test in Okeechobee County.

“I called to ask where they could be tested not only for coronavirus but also for the flu, because I was very frustrated trying to find people that were swabbing or taking test results. I was told to go to my provider. I said I had already been to my provider, and they didn’t offer it. They said go to urgent care. I said I already called urgent care, and they don’t provide it. I called back, and they told me the only place they knew of was the emergency room. So, I’m thinking to myself, people that are sick in Okeechobee County that have no health insurance are not going to go to the hospital with their symptoms unless they think they are in dire straits to go get tested,” said Council member Clark.

“So, I think what happens is, when we don’t have any confirmed cases in Okeechobee County before the decision of the Speckled Perch. Indian River County, Saint Lucie County, Martin County, Glades County, Hendry County, Highlands County there are no confirmed cases. I think it’s very difficult for us to think we are going to be infected if we go out in our community,” said Council member Clark.

“And, we’re not going to have any confirmed cases, and one of the workers from your department, and I’m going to publicly say this said, ‘Well no wonder we don’t have any confirmed cases, because nobody’s testing.’ That was the comment made to me on the telephone two weeks ago not knowing who I was. I’m thinking to myself we have people probably walking around with the coronavirus that are not tested and are not going to be tested and they are going to continue to spread this virus to other people in this community, and hopefully the people it is spread to are concerned enough to stay home.”

She said in Broward County, they have drive-thru testing, but here you have to be admitted to the emergency room. “It’s pretty sad that it’s not more readily available, because I would like to know how many people have been tested.”

Ms. Collins apologized for not educating her staff well enough on how to direct phone calls initially. She again said they have been testing, but said they have to follow CDC guidance. She said she cannot divulge the number of people in Okeechobee who have been tested because doing so would violate HIPPA.

Council member Clark said, “So when did you do the first test at the health department? I just want to know.”

Ms. Collins said, “I’m not willing to share that information … However, that doesn’t mean we’re not testing. Having said that, your point is valid that there is a finite amount of tests. There isn’t an infinite amount of tests. The governor is working with the federal government to get more tests to our communities.”

Few tests in Florida per capita
According to the Florida Department of Health’s online COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard, as of 6 p.m. March 17, so far 2,294 people have been tested in Florida. Of those, 1,017 tests were negative; 216 tests were positive. The remainder are awaiting results.

There are 67 counties in Florida, so that would be about 34 tests per county, if they were divided evenly and not based on population.

According to the 2018 census, Florida has a year round estimated population of 21 million people. So far that means, there have only been 109 tests per one million people or about 1 test per 10,000. Okeechobee County has a census population of 40,000.

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