The major subject of discussion at the regular meeting of the Hendry Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) was the overall message and use of the term “recovery number” regarding active vs inactive cases of COVID-19 in Hendry County.
Dr. Joseph Pepe, Director of the Hendry/Glades Health Department, provided details about current trends and strategies for the community regarding COVID-19, via phone, during the BOCC meeting on June 16, 2020. He reported that the heaviest case load was found in the ages groups of 25-34 and 35-44, but that the most deaths had occurred in the over 65 population. He also spoke about the significant impact to both nursing homes and agricultural workers.
“We have been focusing very much on those areas to get our arms around that,” Dr. Pepe said. “ The good news is that we think that we have been able to contain the agricultural piece. One of the things that has helped significantly is that the workers have all since cleared and have gone back to their home countries or elsewhere. So we feel that is contained at least for now.”
He also said that they have been able to distribute another 37,000 masks, in the last week, and have more masks ordered in preparation of both hurricane shelter usage and reopening of schools.
Dr. Pepe announced “We have since completed our testing of a new type of test, which really excited about. We’ve done about 81 of those tests in order to validate and confirm them against our existing tests. So those individuals were tested twice and we compared the results and the results were very good as far as specificity and sensitivity for COVID-19.” The new tests are a self test model that comes with a padded, postage-paid envelope with a swab and container inside. These tests would enable people to swab themselves, with a much less invasive swab then those performed at medical facilities, they would then mail them to a large lab, and results could be returned within 72 hours from receipt of the envelope. He also said he would be following up with the state for procurement of those tests.
Dr. Pepe also reported that the health department has partnered with fire and EMS for testing government employees, allowing more capacity for community testing. he said they were encouraging more people to seek out COVID-19 testing, “in order to gain a better understanding of where COVID is hiding.” He also reported that in the last 10 days 10 they had seen 10 to 11 new cases per day, a decline from the previous week. He spoke about the significant outbreaks in surrounding communities such as Bell Glade and Immokalee, and the transmission challenges that presented. Partnerships with several medical organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, was helping to provide enhanced care, surveillance, treatment, and education, as well as helping to break the transmission cycles d transportation into our county.
He then went on to explain that they were working on provision of rapid testing and antibody testing, to help figure out how early COVID had come into the community. They are also planning more testing in target areas, in order to to be able to respond more quickly and accurately, until a vaccine protocol could be implemented.
He mentioned that the FDA revoked the Emergency Use Authorization of hydroxychloroquine, due scientific studies showing a lack of effectiveness against COVID-19. But mentioned, Remdesivir, a broad-spectrum antiviral medication, and different types of IL-6 inhibitors that have been showing signs of effective therapy against the virus.
He discussed that the newest findings of symptoms like loss of taste and smell had possible impact ton where the virus is attaching itself within different organs and body systems, and that overall the medical and science community had gained a better understanding of COVID.
Commissioner Turner asked if there was an accurate way to determine the active number of cases in the county. Dr. Pepe Responded by saying there were 295-300 cases, in Hendry, that still required isolation and/or medical attention. Commissioner Wills responded by saying that reporting total number of positive cases, vs active cases, was misleading. Commissioner Turner argued that it was not accurate to promote a message that included the “recovered cases” statistic, because there has not been any concrete, scientific evidence that a person could not be reinfected after any length of time. Turner then asked Dr. Pepe about the height of the curve, and how it has continued to move further and further out. Dr. Pepe explained that the height of the curve was changing in direct response to the removal of controls that were previously in place.
“As we remove restrictions, the peak continues to change,” he said.
“Guys, call it fear-mongering, call it trying to scare the bejeezus out of everyone, call it whatever you need to call it. Say I’m a negative Nelson,” Turner spoke with urgency, “But the point I’m making here is that, you know, I think in the next 2 to 5 days we are going to see another spike that happens statewide because we are seeing a tremendous amount of rallies, we are seeing people that aren’t being vigilant as it relates to protecting themselves.”
“I’m trying to stay positive. I’m not pushing for us to do any type of closures or anything like that,” Turner went on to explain that there were 40,000 people in the county and 21 had died from COVID-related complications. He said that when compared with the number of people tested alongside the number of positive cases, the county was 4-5 points higher than other Florida counties, and that while nobody has pinpointed what that anomaly is related to, Turner urged everyone that the message should be about continuing to be cautious and vigilant, even though it might be uncomfortable. He spoke about other counties requiring and/or utilizing masks vigilantly. He said that the overall message of “recovered cases” was not only misleading it was dangerous, as it encouraged people to let their guard down. “We need to be more mindful and say it’s still an unknown group of variables out there, and we need to be vigilant as it relates to this thing.”
Commissioner Wills replied, “No one is saying let your guard down. We’re just saying people recovered from this.”
“You can’t say that, Commissioner Wills,” Turner responded.
“Why can we not say that?”Wills asked.
“Because the CDC doesn’t even know what recovery means right now. This is something that we’ve never dealt with in the history of our country. Science is saying we don’t know right now, if you get it 15 days from now and you test positive, there is nothing that says you can’t get Covid again X number of days,” said Turner.
“Honestly, I probably had it in February more than likely. I’ve been all over since then, and I haven’t got it back,” Wills said. “I could be walking and fall dead at the door. If that’s what it’s gonna be, it’s gonna be. But, I will not walk in fear every day because somebody is telling me you’re going to get a virus and die. I’m going to say we have 659 cases and when they say how many is active? Well, we have 295 or 300 active. They can do the math their self, brother.”
Wills went on, “Here’s the deal, we don’t have the numbers other people have because our people are not going to get tested. They’re just not. They don’t have the symptoms. They’re not wasting their time to go get tested. What makes our numbers look that bad. That’s just my opinion. I’m not a doctor, I didn’t play one on TV. The fact is we are a smaller town. We are a smaller county. We have to keep our guard up, I agree with that 100%. I just don’t think we need to tell them- hey, if you go to the store and forget your mask you’re gonna die.”
“ i’ve never once said, if you go to the store without a mask you’re going to die,” Turner argued. “ What I said is we have to be hyper vigilant as it relates to COVID.” He began to explain that our county’s population had a high number of residents with the physical and medical conditions, such as smoking, hypertension, and more. All of which are precursors for being more susceptible to COVID. “As it relates to our population, we have to give the actual message, and I don’t think we need to paint a more rosy picture than what it is.”
Turner went on to say that he had voiced his disagreement with using a recovery number from the beginning, and still did. “ Nobody else is doing it. The CDC is not doing it. When the CDC is not doing something, or the FTA, or other entities out there. The state is not giving a recovered number, and Hendry County is doing it? I just think we’re giving misleading percentage.” He added, “One more point, I think it would be even more dim and grim if we tested more people. I think the percentage is actually a lot higher than what we realize.”
Dr. Pepe spoke, “I think you’re all correct and I agree with the Mr. Turner, as well. That we’re not out of the woods. We need to continue to monitor. Realize that as our population changes, snowbirds, that is going to change.”
The message he wanted to impress upon everyone was, “ remain diligent. If you’re vulnerable take extra precautions. If you’re sick, stay home. Wear a mask whenever possible. Good sanitizing, social distancing, we know that works. You can see the impact it had on our numbers.“ He went on, “There is a psychological and economic impact to this pandemic, that we will be learning about for years to come. For instance, we know that drug use and domestic violence calls have gone up. It’s stressing our community immensely.” He explained, “ until we have a vaccine or some type of intervention we’re going to have to maintain this posture for quite some time.”
The meeting continued with a discussion about political campaign signs and the current regulations were too restrictive, and that they needed to be amended. Turner commented that he would like to see Code Enforcement working on bigger more problematic issues first, and the rest of the board agreed.
The Fire Department’s desperate need for more funding, especially concerning expired bunker gear and other serious problems, was also discussed.
The commissioners also discussed that the Census response was very low for Hendry County. They talked about the challenges of reaching everyone in such a rural community, as well as the language barriers, and ways to remedy those challenges. Commissioner Emma Byrd agreed, and mentioned the importance of reaching out to even more people, explaining what the Census is, what it does, and how it works. All commended Patricia Ayala on her work with spreading the word, and educating people about the matter, saying she had made a presence at the local food banks each week, to reach out to more participants.
Food banks were brought up, the need for food continuing to rise due to the pandemic. The BOCC mentioned that US Sugar and Serving with Love Ministry had really been an integral part of keeping the community fed, but that the demand continued to grow. It was also mentioned that there was an influx of out-of-county needs being met in Hendry, due to shortages and challenges elsewhere.
BOCC Meeting changes were discussed, and it was agreed that, for the time being, they would continue to allow public comment and meeting attendance by phone due to the complications surrounds the pandemic.
Persons wishing to request public records from Hendry County should submit their request to Emily Hunter. Contact information is as follows:
Communications & Legislative Coordinator
Mailing address: P.O. Box 2340, LaBelle, FL 33975
Physical address: 640 S. Main St., LaBelle, FL
Phone: (863) 675-5304