OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee County officials are concerned that limited testing for COVID-19 in the county has skewed the county’s positive percentage.
As of Sept. 24, the cumulative positive for the county was 13.76%. For tests conducted the previous day, 4.26% were positive.
At the Sept. 24 meeting of the Okeechobee County commissioners, Public Safety Officer Ralph Franklin said free COVID-19 testing is available for those who have symptoms from the Florida Department of Health in Okeechobee County, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. To make an appointment, call 863-462-5800, option 3.
Commissioner David Hazellief said while it’s good that testing is available for those who have symptoms, he thinks the limited availability of testing in Okeechobee County is causing the county’s positive rate to be higher. The testing really does nothing to paint the good picture of what is going on, he said.
“When you are testing only those with symptoms, you are not getting a good sample pool of the population,” agreed Mitch Smeykal of the Emergency Operations Center.
“If you are not testing asymptomatic people, that’s the problem I have had with the health department,” said Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs. Other counties are testing asymptomatic people, he said. “I don’t understand why we are just testing symptomatic (individuals).”
Smeykal said in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a shortage of test kits. At first, they also did not know that those who do not have symptoms could be positive and spread the virus to others, he added.
“Now we know we have community spread,” he said. “Why aren’t we testing everybody who wants a test?”
No representatives of the health department were present at the county meeting to answer that question.
The limited testing has made the county’s positive ratio much higher than anywhere else in the state, said Hazellief.
“You always err on the side of the caution when it’s a bug you haven’t seen before,” said Smeykal. He said some health precautions encouraged to avoid spread of COVID-19 are things people should do all the time, such as washing your hands and staying home when you are sick.
County Administrator Robbie Chartier said Okeechobee County had 144 cases in the seven-day period ending Sept. 22.
“Percents don’t really matter,” she said.
“Without testing the entire population and having results in a relative time frame, you cannot tell what the true percentage is,” said Smeykal.
He said he thinks looking at hospitalizations for COVID-19 and emergency room visits for COVID and flu-like illnesses is a better measure of public health. He said the trend is coming down for ER visits for COVID-like illnesses but that ER visits for influenza are increasing.
“If you have people with co-morbidities and they get COVID-19, the outcomes are not as good, said Smeykal. “Population seems to drive this bug. The denser the population, the more cases you have.”
According to the Florida Department of Health dashboard, as of Sept. 24 Okeechobee County has 24 deaths related to COVID-19. Since testing began in March, the county has had 1,504 positive cases, including three nonresidents.
Since testing started, 167 Okeechobee County residents and two nonresidents who tested positive have been hospitalized. According to the Florida Health Care Administration, there are currently 15 Okeechobee County COVID-19 positive residents hospitalized. One ICU bed is available at the county’s hospital. The county only has eight ICU beds total. However, larger hospitals in neighboring counties have more ICU availability. Martin County hospitals have 22 ICU beds open; Palm Beach County, 154 ICU beds open; St. Lucie County, 10 ICU beds open.
According to FDOH, Okeechobee County deaths related to COVID-19 include:
• Female, 65, positive test reported June 22;
• Male, 93, positive test reported June 26;
• Male 70, positive test reported June 26;
• Male 63, positive test reported July 4.
• Male, 60, positive test reported July 6;
• Male, 75, positive test reported July 8;
• Female, 79, positive test reported July 9;
• Male, 93, positive test reported, July 9;
• Female, 78, positive test reported July 9;
• Male, 60, positive test reported July 9;
• Male, 60, positive test reported July 10;
• Female, 82, positive test reported July 12;
FDOH does not release the names or the dates of death. The medical examiner determines the cause of death.
Also: The Okeechobee County Judicial Center, which went back to Phase 1 restrictions last week, has reopened to the public. Chairman Burroughs said the chief judge made a decision on some inaccurate information he had been given, and when he found the information was inaccurate, he reversed the decision.