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Residents allowed to return to Vero’s island beaches (sort of)


The sight of island residents this week out walking on our beaches once again was almost reminiscent of the aftermath of a hurricane.  We know the drill.  The storm passes, the power comes back on, the bridges open, we begin the cleanup, and we walk along the sea marveling that we got off so easy – that everything seems pretty much as it did before.

But what worried many longtime residents last week was that the COVID-19 pandemic was more like the storms of 2004, when we were still cleaning up after Hurricane Frances and a couple of weeks later, warnings went up that Hurricane Jeanne was barreling toward Florida’s east coast.

If you were here then, you know that sinking “Oh, no. Not this again” feeling.

It wasn’t over. We were exposed, roofs still covered in blue tarps. Windows shattered. We were in no shape to handle a second major hurricane after being battered by the first.

Knowing that re-opening the economy too hastily could cause a resurgence of coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths is obviously a real concern.

When do we loosen restrictions, re-open businesses and do things like dining out and going to the movies and the mall again? Knowing when it’s really safe, and weighing that against the risk of infecting more people and overwhelming the local healthcare system, is the dilemma here.

On one hand, we are all really weary of staying home.

The social isolation of the same old four walls is wearing on our mental and physical health. And most of us have things we really need to be doing, people depending on us, plans put on hold by the coronavirus. Maybe we desperately need to get back to work, or get our employees back to work – to get customers flowing back in and orders flowing back out.

But going out, even wearing a mask, is still kind of scary.

So how long do we wait? Beaches opened back up this week for limited walking and recreation (but not for picnicking or sunbathing), so that’s a positive sign. But what about everything else?

Dozens of experts and leaders in every major industry spent last week pondering this dilemma via Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Re-Open Florida Task Force. DeSantis said Florida has surpassed the federal hurdles to begin the first phases of re-opening our economy.

“If you look at the gating criteria, and I spoke with Dr. (Deborah) Birx about this this morning, Florida satisfies the gating criteria statewide, even Miami, Palm Beach and Broward,” DeSantis said. “It’s the decline in Influenza-like illness (ILI) activity. It’s the decline in the syndromic surveillance ... it’s the decline in the positive test rate, which we’ve had a really nice decline there, plus making sure the hospitals have enough capacity.”

If you carve South Florida out, DeSantis said, case numbers across the rest of the state have been very low – “lower than anyone would have predicted.”

Still, no major announcements were made as to what would happen as the calendar turns the page from April to May.

There was a lot of talk about allowing elective medical procedures very soon, and state parks might also be re-opening soon on a limited basis after being closed since March 23. County officials, who log into multiple daily conference calls on the coronavirus crisis, have thus far followed state guidance and enforced executive orders.

“This phase 1 is a baby step, I mean we are deliberately going to be methodical, slow and data-driven on this,” DeSantis said.

One thing that might make residents feel more comfortable about re-opening the economy is an increased level of widespread testing to determine how many people truly have the coronavirus in our community. Indian River County is doing better than our closest neighbor to the south, but there’s still much room for improvement.

In Indian River County as of Monday, one in every 93 people had been tested. St. Lucie County has only tested one in every 105 people. But Brevard County, where virtually all testing criteria has been dropped and anyone can get tested, has tested one in every 72 people and gotten its percentage of positive tests down to a mere 3 percent. Statewide, about one in every 59 people has been tested for the coronavirus.

We know, based upon sound scientific evidence, that asymptomatic people can still spread the disease. But currently, Indian River County is still following the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for testing, meaning a person either needs to have a history of travel, contact with an infected person or flu-like symptoms.

Healthcare workers, first responders can also be tested, but not the general, asymptomatic public. Anyone who feels they meet the criteria to be tested should call the Cleveland Clinic Indian River nurse triage line at 772-226-4846 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

As of press time Monday, the county’s case count sat at 90, with the average day bringing zero, one or two new cases at the most. Current hospitalizations are down to about half of where they were two or three weeks ago. The rate of positive testing for Indian River County is 6 percent, which is also roughly half the percentage of people testing positive a week ago, and well below the state average of 9 percent. That is the good news.

Tragically, five people in their 80s and 90s have died – four of them in a nursing home, placing our death rate at 5.5 percent. By comparison, that death rate is better than New York, but about even with Louisiana and Washington State.

Three senior care facilities – HarborChase of Vero, Palm Garden of Vero and Sonata Assisted Living – have positive cases of the coronavirus, according to state reports. The fact that we’ve had new outbreaks in additional facilities is a reminder that the county’s good-looking statistics could go south very quickly with 25 nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the county.