Okeechobee nursing home to be retested Friday; Fire/rescue employee tests positive

OKEECHOBEE – Ambulances, state “strike team” nurses and National Guard members will be at Okeechobee Health Care Facility and Grand Oaks on Friday to test all residents and staff members.

At the May 7 meeting of the Okeechobee County Commission, Tiffany Collins of the Okeechobee County Health Department, said increased testing should be available in Okeechobee County soon. She said she has requested 1,000 test kits which should arrive over the weekend.

She said as the community follows the guidelines to reopen some businesses, it is important for everyone to wear cloth masks in public and to maintain the 6 feet of social distance from others. “This cloth protects you from me,” she said, indicating her cloth mask. She said if everyone wears cloth masks in public, it will help slow the spread of the virus.

Frequent hand washing is still important, she continued. “Keep your hands out of your face, your eyes, your nose, your mouth,” she continued. “No more than ten people in a meeting. If you can telework, that’s still recommended.”

As of May 7, she said Okeechobee County had 22 cases of COVID in the community, ranging in age from 6 to 87. That number is growing, she added. The positive cases include several household clusters, one resident and three staff members at OHCF. Positive cases also include several correction facility workers who live in Okeechobee and work in correctional facilities out of Okeechobee County.

Ms. Collins said the Centers for Disease Control has expanded the testing criteria to include: chills, muscle pain, sore throat, vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of taste or smell. “If you have any of these symptoms, regardless of your age, call the health department, we will make sure you get tested,” she said. Ms. Collins said they are working with a local pharmacy to set up drive-thru testing for those who do not have symptoms.

Starting Friday, the state will start publishing the recovery numbers, she added.

Mitch Smeykal of the Okeechobee County Emergency Operations Center said Red Cross and the state are discussing the “hot potato” of how to set up hurricane shelters this year. “Sheltering will be different this year,” he said. “The problem is how much square footage has to be allocated for each person.”

County administrator Robbie Chartier said county facility rentals will remain closed through May. She said county summer camp information is on hold for now. “This is time of year we would be accepting for summer camp, but we can’t do that right now.”

“If we don’t reopen soon, we won’t have an economy to reopen,” said Commission Chair Terry Burroughs. He said these businesses know how to keep their employees and their customers safe. He said he will continue to ask the governor’s office to reopen Okeechobee County to levels recommended by the state task force. The task force recommendations included allowing hair salons and barber shops to reopen with limited capacity and for restaurants to have 50% capacity. So far, the governor has not reopened salons or barber shops and restaurants are limited to 25% capacity.

Chairman Burroughs also said the sheriff should not be criticized for enforcing the law. “The sheriff is in the middle of this thing. He didn’t ask for it to be this way. He is the law enforcement officer for this community,” said Chairman Burroughs. “He doesn’t have a choice. People who sit and chastise him, I don’t think they should be doing that.”

“It’s incumbent on him to follow the law,” he said.

Okeechobee County Fire Rescue has been notified that an employee who is a firefighter/EMT tested positive for the coronavirus. The employee began showing symptoms of the virus during the evening of May 3 and was relieved of duty with instructions to self-isolate at home. The employee was tested by the Department of Health on May 4.

At this time, Okeechobee Count Fire/Rescue is arranging for all employees who came in close contact with the firefighter to be tested. In addition, the three other members of the station crew and two off duty employees who exercised with the firefighter have been relieved of duty pending the results of the testing. Any further action concerning this situation will be determined by the testing results.

This event has not affected the department’s ability to respond to emergency calls for service. The station is being covered by overtime and administrative staff personnel.

As part of the normal process, the Department of Health will research others who came in close contact with the employee.

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