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Health Department delves into COVID-19 data for town

Longboat begins getting COVID-19 reports designed to eliminate confusion prompted by its two-county status.

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  • | 1:30 p.m. December 17, 2020
The Longboat Key Town Commission will use a hybrid approach for meetings (four of the seven commissioners physically present) for the remainder of 2020.
The Longboat Key Town Commission will use a hybrid approach for meetings (four of the seven commissioners physically present) for the remainder of 2020.
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COVID-19 data collection is turning out to be another complication attributed to Longboat Key’s status as one of a handful of Florida towns to occupy more than one county.

As the town gets ready for the bulk of the tourist and winter-resident season, there’s increasing concern about how local COVID-19 cases are tallied. So much so, the Sarasota County office of the Florida Department of Health has agreed to provide the town a customized COVID-19 report, pulling data manually from Manatee and Sarasota counties and making sure its assigned properly.

During a typical season, the population of the island goes from about 7,000 full-time residents to more than 21,000. Even if the 2020-2021 visitor season doesn’t rise to the traditional levels, there is still apprehension about accurate numbers and how cases are counted when they involve out of town residents who stay in Longboat for a period of time during the winter. Some of those cases are simply assigned to an "out of state" category, not a winter address.

Chuck Henry, a health officer with the Florida Department of Health’s Sarasota County office, addressed Longboat Key town commissioners recently via Zoom to discuss COVID-19 testing and the state’s database.

“This has been a very long response already,” Henry said. “We are entering into the 10th month of active emergency response related to COVID-19, and I believe we still have four to six months to go depending on how quickly the vaccine rolls out and how effective that is, which depends on how many people take the vaccine. So it’s still a journey ahead of us there.”

Henry told Longboat leaders that the state data on COVID-19 cases is filtered by ZIP code. In Longboat’s case,  the 34228 postal zone matches the island’s boundaries but is broken into two counties. Often, he said, Sarasota County cases in Longboat default incorrectly to Manatee County. Henry said the local health department, moving forward, would manually sift through all the cases in the ZIP code and deliver a weekly report to Town Manager Tom Harmer with the proper breakdown.

Harmer on Monday said the town has cumulatively had at least 107 cases of COVID-19. According to the most recent data, Longboat saw 35 cases in November – the highest number since the pandemic began. Weekly reports of positive cases through Dec. 12 averaged about eight a week.

Henry called it a “workaround” to correct the state’s COVID-19 data. He acknowledged the data’s challenges too as it pertains to Sarasota's maps locating positive case concentrations.

“One of the problems with that over time, and so I'm not sure the bang is worth the buck so to speak, is that by the time we contact them and ask them to change things, and they get in and change things, and then we could pull the data and make the data available to our emergency operations center that creates the heat map, we’re already three, four, five, six, seven days out, and some of the cases start falling off.”

Harmer said in addition to Longboat-specific numbers, he pays attention to ZIP codes that surround Longboat Key for a deeper look at case positivity. Those numbers tally between 250-300 confirmed cases.

"There is still some questions about seasonal residents, but this does give us a sense of what's happening on the island overall,'' Harmer said.

Some of the confusion on Longboat also stems from the state data assigning COVID-19 cases to a ZIP code based on permanent addresses. It means if someone tested positive for COVID-19 and their address was outside the state of Florida, it would only be reflected in a separate out-of-state category.

While the state's emergency orders were lifted, allowing municipalities to enforce local mask codes, Longboat has maintained its rules through March 31, 2021, essentially removing individual penalties but requiring businesses to post signs requiring mask use indoors. Harmer has routinely said the town has seen good compliance among people on the island.

The town will also continue using a hybrid approach for meetings until at least the end of the year. It means four of the seven town commissioners need to be physically present inside the chambers at Town Hall with the others participating using Zoom. The town limits the number of people inside the Town Hall chambers, spaces out the chairs and requires masks, a series of health questions and a temperature check.

The first batches of vaccine began arriving early this week into the Tampa Bay area, though initial doses are headed for hospital teams and the most vulnerable residents – many of them in nursing homes or hospitals.

"We're still trying to get the word out for people to continue to take those actions individually to social distance, wear a mask, wash your hands and be safe," Harmer said. 

(Managing Editor Eric Garwood contributed)





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