Three Okeechobee County students may have been infected with COVID-19 at school

County approves grant match for affordable housing project

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OKEECHOBEE — Three Okeechobee County students who tested COVID-19 positive may have caught the virus at school, according to Tiffany Collins of the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) in Okeechobee County. At the Nov. 19 meeting of the Okeechobee County commissioners, Collins said there have been three possible secondary exposures in the school systems.

She said this could have happened when students took off their masks to eat lunch or in an outside activity.

With COVID-19 cases nationwide again increasing, the commissioners extended the local state of emergency (LSE) at their Nov. 19 meeting.

Collins said FDOH was able to get some additional funding for contact tracing. She said the funding would have run out at the end of this month, but they have received “$255,000 to continue contact tracing efforts, which will allow us to continue contact tracing through June 30 (2021).”

She said the positivity rate for the past two weeks was 8.45%. Currently, testing is only offered for those who have symptoms, she explained. They offer testing to first responders who do not have symptoms but have few requests for that, she added. To date, 201 Okeechobee County residents have been hospitalized and 43 COVID-19 related deaths reported to FDOH.

That means 11% of those who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Okeechobee County have been hospitalized and 2% have died, she explained.

The median age of COVID-19 positive persons in Okeechobee County is 40. For the past two weeks, the average per day has been 10 positives in the county. The previous two weeks, the county was averaging six positives per day.

Over 13,000 people have been tested in the county, but that number includes some people who have been tested more than once, she explained. Nursing home residents and staff have been tested more than once. As long as a person tests negative, additional tests continue to be added to the total. Once a person tests positive, all subsequent tests on that person, positive or negative, are not added to the totals on the state dashboard. Overall, the county has had a 14.5% positivity rate, including all testing since March.

About 10% of antibody tests have been positive, she said.

She said they continue to monitor the progress of the development of vaccines. The Okeechobee Health Care Facility has signed up for vaccine distribution through CVS. “We’re going to work with Grand Oaks (assisted living facility) to get them on the list that is going to CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention),” Collins added.

Currently, Raulerson Hospital has six patients who are COVID-19 positive, she said. The hospital has those patients isolated. Six of the eight ICU beds at Raulerson Hospital are currently in use.

Collins said the health department has flu shots available and will do some homeless outreach. “If you don’t have insurance or your insurance doesn’t cover the flu shot, please call us and we will make sure you get your flu shot,” she explained.

With the Thanksgiving holiday approaching, Collins encouraged residents to avoid crowds, wear masks when out in public and continue to follow other safety precautions such as frequent and thorough handwashing.

“For Thanksgiving, make sure you are staying safe,” she said. “Do the best you can to limit your Thanksgiving festivities to immediate family.”

“A group of mayors are pushing the governor to tighten up restrictions and implement a statewide mask mandate,” said Commissioner David Hazellief. He said they are recommending the local entities control decisions about shutting down any businesses.

“DeSantis made a comment the day before yesterday that he was not going to shut down. He was not going backward,” said Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs. He said the economies of the small communities would not survive another shutdown.

“We have a substantial number of seasonal workers who come in,” noted Commissioner Bryant Culpepper. “Do we have any way to reach those individuals for testing or masks?

“Not knowing where they are originating from, we don’t know if they have been tested,” he said.

Collins said the health department is working with the agriculture community. “The migrant labor camp community is a hard population to reach,” she explained. “They work seven days week, travel long distances and work very long days.

“If they are coming into our county from another county, we will have to coordinate with the other county,” she said.

In other business, the commissioners approved allocating up to $143,393 in matching funds for the 2020 Home Investment Grants Program. County Administrator Robbie Chartier said the developer wants to start a third phase of the apartment complex near the rodeo grounds.

The first phase, which has 26 units, is occupied. The second phase, with 22 units, is near completion. The apartments are available to renters whose household income is between 50% and 80% of the median for the area. (The median household income is $41,000.)

“We need affordable housing desperately,” said Culpepper, but he questioned how long it took for the first two phases to be completed. “I want some kind of assurance that it won’t be another four years or five years for this phase to be done,” he said.

“I am for it. One of the biggest complaints I hear is there is not affordable housing out there,” said Goodbread.

“My concern is that project sat idle for a long time until one of our local contractors stepped up and completed it,” said Culpepper. “We need the housing, but by the same token I am concerned about spending this money and it stops in the middle.”

“Contractors are bonded,” said Commissioner Brad Goodbread. “They hired a contractor from Tampa and he had some problems. I think they got some money from his bonding company and they got a local contractor who came in and fixed it.”

He said the delay was not the developer’s fault.

“Florida Housing was in the middle of all that,” said Chartier. “He had to get extensions. We could find out through Florida Housing what happened and why.”

Burroughs said affordable housing is desperately needed in Okeechobee County. People who cannot find other housing are paying high rent for old mobile homes that are in poor condition, he continued.

“We got older mobile homes that have aluminum wiring in them and that is scary,” agreed Culpepper. “People are paying $800, $900 a month for 40-year-old mobile homes.”

“I totally agree there is a rental problem,” said Goodbread, but he said he still has faith “the free market it will work itself out. Although there may be a time lag, the free market will work its magic,” he said.

The county’s grant match will come from the State Housing Initiatives Partnership program funds. Chartier said the county currently has a balance of $795,238 in SHIP fundings, not counting the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding. She said there is $40,000 left in the county’s CARES Act funding to help residents who have fallen behind on rent or mortgage payments due to loss of income related to the pandemic. Burroughs said the county may receive a second disbursement of CARES Act funds for housing.

In other business, Burroughs reported Okeechobee County has distributed $1,055,000 in CARES Act business grants and has about $250,000 of that funding left, with applications still pending.

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