County health chief hopes Trump’s case ‘a wake-up call’ to COVID-19 skeptics

Hours after Palm Beach County’s top health official on Monday said she hoped President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis would force doubters to take the deadly disease seriously, her hopes were at last partially dashed with a tweet.

a person wearing a hat: Chef Rasheed Shihada wears a mask while selling olive oil at his stand Olive Oil of the World Michael at the West Palm Beach GreenMarket opening in West Palm Beach, Florida on October 3, 2020.

© Greg Lovett, The Palm Beach Post
Chef Rasheed Shihada wears a mask while selling olive oil at his stand Olive Oil of the World Michael at the West Palm Beach GreenMarket opening in West Palm Beach, Florida on October 3, 2020.

“Feeling really good!” Trump tweeted at midafternoon to announce he would be leaving the hospital soon. “Don’t be afraid of Covid.”

The message was far different from the one county health director Dr. Alina Alonso has been preaching since the pandemic began in March.

More: DeSantis to hand out rapid-result coronavirus tests

But, Alonso said, she was hopeful that the diagnoses of Trump, the first lady and others who attended campaign events or a White House ceremony would nevertheless change minds.

“I hope this is a wake-up call and people don’t think it’s a hoax anymore,” she said.

Since the mask-shunning Trump and others began announcing their diagnoses Friday, she said she has seen that people who hadn’t embraced facial coverings in the past were wearing them. “That’s very encouraging,” she said.

While the outlook in Florida and Palm Beach County continued to improve with the latest coronavirus update from the Florida Department of Health, Alonso said there are still lots of unknowns.

She said she is working with local universities to get a better handle on how many college students have tested positive. Because of the way cases are reported, students at local universities who test positive may not show up as county cases.

If they give test-takers their home addresses, their diagnoses would be added to those in their home counties, which in some cases could be in other states. 

Since the out-of-county and out-of-state students become invisible to local health officials, epidemiologists can’t call them to find out who else they may have infected. Such contact tracing is critical to slowing the spread of the disease, she said.

More: Affluent campuses are filling with kids. The poorest schools remain mostly online.

The cases of Trump and first lady Melania Trump, for instance, would have been reported as county cases if they were regular citizens and had used their official address in Palm Beach as their home. 

However, Alonso said she learned Monday, that because of their status, their cases won’t be reported to local health officials regardless of what home address they used. 

The address confusion over college students is much more concerning, she said.

Those between the ages of 15 and 24 account for roughly 18% of the new people diagnosed statewide and in the county. It’s important to reach out to them and those they have had contact with, she said.

While state health officials last week began issuing a report of how many students at each university in Florida have been infected, it isn’t being updated daily. The latest report included only those diagnosed from Sept. 6 to Sept. 26.

In that report, Florida Atlantic University had the most infections among local colleges with 89 people diagnosed, followed by Lynn University with 29 and Palm Beach Atlantic University with 17.

While cases have spiked in Leon and Alachua counties, home to Florida State University and the University of Florida, respectively, there’s little way of knowing for certain that the uptick is linked to classes beginning in late August.

Likewise, cases have increased in Boca Raton by 8.6% since mid-September, more than elsewhere in the county. With more than 6,900 people diagnosed, it now has the second-highest number of cases in the county behind West Palm Beach with roughly 11,500.

But whether it is because Boca Raton is home to both FAU and Lynn University is unknown without better data, Alonso said.

Dr. Charles Murphy, chief quality and safety officer at Jupiter Medical Center, agreed that more information is needed about infection rates – not just among college-age students but also all school-age children.

“We really just get little pieces of information,” he said.

The Palm Beach County School District on Monday continued to report that 20 employees and 13 students at K-12 schools had been infected. The report hadn’t been updated since Friday.

Like Alonso, Murphy noted that recent trends for the virus are encouraging.

The number of new coronavirus cases reported Monday was among the lowest tallied in four months, according to a daily update from the health department.

A week after just 728 people were diagnosed on a single day statewide, another 1,415 people were added to the case count Monday. That’s the second-lowest daily increase since June 10, when 1,371 new cases were reported.

In Palm Beach County, an additional 74 people were diagnosed with the highly contagious respiratory disease.

More: Despite national high profile cases, county’s coronavirus positivity rates in 3% range

Other than on two days last week, when the number of new cases dropped below 68, Monday’s increase was the lowest since May 27, when 26 new infections were reported.

However, the number of cases and deaths reported often drops on Mondays.

While the number of new cases dipped this Monday, the number reported statewide is still among the highest in the nation. Only California and Texas, which are much more populous, have reported more, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

A total of 717,874 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in Florida since the pandemic began in March, including 47,153 in Palm Beach County.

The prevalence of the virus remains low, state health officials said. While a relatively low number of 34,303 tests were reported statewide, just 3.93% of them were positive. Over the past 14 days, the state’s positivity rate has averaged 4.52%.

In the county, just 3.13% of the 2,356 tests that were reported were positive. That’s below the 5.0% level that global-health experts say is needed for meaningful steps to be taken to control the virus.

Over the past 14 days, the county’s rate, which indicates the prevalence of the virus in the community, has averaged 3.5%.

An additional 41 fatalities were reported statewide Monday, pushing Florida’ death toll to 14,886, including 174 nonresidents who died in the state. No new deaths were reported in the county, leaving the number of fatalities unchanged at 1,416.

Overnight, an additional 54 people were hospitalized throughout the state for treatment of COVID-19, according to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration. It reported 2,099 patients were hospitalized on Monday morning.

However, the number changes throughout the day as people are discharged and admitted. Patient counts have remained around 2,100 for the last week.

In the county, 96 people were being treated for COVID-19 at local medical centers, the agency reported. That’s five fewer than on Sunday morning.

Both Murphy and Alonso said the metrics, particularly the overall drop in hospital admissions, are good signs.

But, Murphy said, that could change. In the past several weeks, there has been an uptick of cases in Britain, Israel and other European countries. That’s cause for concern because those countries were hard hit before the United States, which could signal the possibility for another wave here, he said.

There has also been an uptick in cases in states throughout the U.S. in the past week.

“It’s just hard to know,” Murphy said of the disease that has proven to be unpredictable.

The approaching flu season and the possibility for a “twindemic” also adds to the concern. Both Murphy and Alonso are recommending that people get flu shots soon. 

Further, they said, with another contagious and potentially fatal disease on the horizon, people should also continue to wear masks and engage in social distancing.

Early reports from Australia, where the flu season hits before the United States, indicate that it has been less severe than in previous years, Murphy said. 

Many believe that’s because of the large number of people who are protecting themselves from COVID-19, he said.


This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Coronavirus: County health chief hopes Trump’s case ‘a wake-up call’ to COVID-19 skeptics

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