County extends local state of emergency; new studies encourage use of cloth face masks

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OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee County Public Safety Officer Ralph Franklin told Okeechobee County commissioners at their Nov. 12 meeting that he would be comfortable allowing the Local State of Emergency (LSE) for the COVID-19 pandemic to expire.

“I’m not. There is an outbreak going on right now,” said Commissioner Brad Goodbread. “The hospital is going to need additional supplies. I know they need additional help right now,” he said.

“We had some more deaths this week,” added Goodbread, noting he is personally aware of some recent COVID-19 deaths. The ones who passed away this week are not yet on the state report, he noted.

County Attorney Wade Vose said if an LSE is not in place, the county will have to follow normal purchasing policies in order to spend the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act money.

Mitch Smeykal of the Emergency Operations Center said the reason they cannot currently supply Raulerson Hospital is that Raulerson is a for-profit hospital. He said earlier this year they were allowed to help the hospital with permission from the state due to the critical shortage of PPE (personal protective equipment).

Tiffany Collins of the Okeechobee Health Department said the health department is the lead agency for emergency support.

“We also support the hospital system,” she said. “One of the caveats being able to get back into elective surgery was that they were able to manage themselves and provide their own PPE.”

Collins said the United States has had more than 10 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 240,000 deaths.

Florida’s death rate is staying steady at 2%, she said. Okeechobee County also has a 2% death rate.

In Okeechobee County, 11% of all COVID-19 positive cases have required hospitalization, Collins said.

“Our positivity rate has increased from 6.77% to 7.3% over past two weeks,” she said. The median age for positive cases is 40.

“As of yesterday, there were six individuals hospitalized with primary diagnosis of COVID-19,” Collins said. She said Raulerson Hospital has no ICU beds available, but the hospital did not disclose how many of those in ICU are COVID patients.

She said a large international study found obesity was a high risk factor for pneumonia with COVID-19.

“You are at most risk if you have a BMI of 30 or greater,” she explained. BMI stands for body mass index. (For example, a person who is 5 feet tall and weighs 153.5 pounds has a BMI of 30. A person who is 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 186 pounds has a BMI of 30. A person who is 6 feet tall and weighs 221 pounds has a BMI of 30.)

Collins said the health department is encouraging everyone get their flu shots as COVID-19 and flu can coexist.

The schools continue to monitor potential COVID-19 exposures, she said. In the current nine weeks, there have been 160 students and seven staff members excluded from in-person classes for 14 days due to potential COVID-19 exposures.

Wear a mask

Collins said recent studies have found that wearing a cloth face mask not only protects others from you but also protects you from others. If you wear a two-ply mask, it can block 50 to 80 percent of the fine droplets and particles you come in contact with, said Collins. A three-ply mask is even better.

“Stay away from bandannas and gaiter masks, as they are the least effective,” she advised.

When choosing a mask, fit is important, she said. “They don’t want any of your breath to come out,” she explained. The virus is most easily transmitted in the droplets of moisture that leave the mouth or nose when you talk, cough or sneeze. Do not use masks that have exhalation valves, she stressed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also stresses the importance of washing your hands or using hand sanitizer after taking off the mask, and of washing masks between uses.

Commissioner Kelly Owens suggested the county leave the LSE in place until they see what happens with the predicted surge of COVID-19 cases in the winter months.

The county commissioners unanimously voted to keep the LSE in place.

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