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Sarasota Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020 3 months ago

Rising COVID-19 numbers spark concern in Sarasota

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An increase the local rate of positive COVID-19 tests has officials stressing the importance of behaving cautiously and following health guidelines.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

As the City Commission discussed safety protocols for in-person meetings Nov. 16, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch noted that state COVID-19 data showed that the presence of the coronavirus in the community had changed notably since late October.

“I just want to remind everybody that about two or three weeks ago, our positivity rate was half of what it is now,” Ahearn-Koch said. “The cases are on the rise.”

On Nov. 16, the average positivity rate for COVID-19 tests in Sarasota County during the previous week was 7.2%, nearly double the 3.8% positivity rate three weeks earlier. Rising positivity rates and an increase in testing has produced a spike in identified case volume. At the beginning of October, Sarasota County was averaging just more than 30 new cases daily. As of Monday, the county had reported an average of 176 new cases daily over the previous week.

Those numbers have caused concern but not panic for local health officials. On Nov. 18, Sarasota Memorial Hospital President and CEO David Verinder affirmed that cases and hospitalizations had increased locally over the past few weeks. He said the hospital felt prepared for the potential of another surge, but so far, the volume at SMH has remained manageable.

For now, Verinder stressed the importance of adhering to public health guidelines.

“We’re doing well, but we want to continue to reinforce — please wear a mask, please stay socially distanced, and please be aware that this is a very serious disease,” Verinder said in a video.

The messaging from Sarasota County and the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County is similar. In an email sent through a spokesperson, Sarasota County Emergency Services and the local Department of Health said “overall community spread” was the primary driver of increasing case numbers.

Although the email did not associate the increases with any specific behavior, officials said the data was cause for concern.

“While our numbers are not as high as some areas of the nation, there is still concern about increase in community transmission over the past few weeks, especially with the holidays approaching,” the email said. “So overall, the advice has not changed, but perhaps the way people think about that advice may be different.”

Cars wait in rows at the state-run drive-thru COVID-19 testing site at 100 Cattlemen Road on Monday, Nov. 23.

Verinder said there are likely a confluence of factors contributing to the increased spread, including more indoor gatherings during cooler months, the arrival of seasonal residents and the decreased compliance with precautions, such as mask-wearing.

“We don’t want to discourage people from being out, but we just want you to be safe when you are out,” Verinder said.

For residents looking for guidance, the county said it would share information from the Florida Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommended against traveling for Thanksgiving on Nov. 19. The county highlighted the following guidelines while community spread remains elevated:

  • Keep social circles small;
  • Make plans for protecting vulnerable populations, including the elderly and individuals with underlying conditions; and
  • Practice social distancing, wear masks when social distancing is not possible, and wash  frequently.

County health officials said one of the biggest challenges in managing the spread of the disease locally is people becoming weary of dealing with the pandemic more than nine months after the first Sarasota case was identified.

“We need people to continue to do those things that have been successful in controlling the virus so far, especially staying home if sick or staying home when we’ve been in direct contact with someone sick,” the email said.

Sarasota Memorial Hospital officials said the hospital continues to be a safe space despite rising COVID-19 cases in the community. Image courtesy Sarasota Memorial Hospital.

Verinder said the hospital was in a better position to respond to COVID-19 cases than it was in the initial wave in March because doctors know much more about the disease. He, too, stressed the need to continue to behave cautiously and responsibly for at least awhile longer. With multiple vaccines in development and showing promising early results, though, he expressed optimism that progress isn’t far away.

“I’m very hopeful that we can get back to some level of normalcy in the next few months,” Verinder said.

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