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COVID-19 cases way down here, but county death rate continues to rise

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of August 20, 2020)

New positive COVID-19 test results and testing numbers were way down at the start of the week, but while Indian River County seemed to be recovering from its big summer wave of cases, a growing number of patients are not recovering at all.

The county’s death toll climbed nearly 20 percent between Aug. 10 to Aug. 17, with 11 new deaths for a total of 67 local people killed by the virus as we went to press Monday, meaning that 2.5 percent of Indian River County people who tested positive have died.

The vast majority of the people reported dead from COVID-19 in August were in their 80s and 90s,  with a few in their 70s or younger. But the long lives these people enjoyed prior to succumbing to the pandemic does not make the loss any less tragic or heartbreaking.

The fact that COVID-19 is still quite active among our most vulnerable in nursing homes and assisted living communities cannot be brushed aside as a problem happening in some far-flung place, walled off from our neighborhoods, workplaces and schools.

Still, a sense of complacency seems to be setting in, as evidenced by the low testing numbers.

Since Aug. 10, an average of only 337 tests came back per day, as compared to an average of 420 tests per day the prior week.

Out of the 2,360 tests results returned the past seven days, 118 of were positive, for a 5 percent positivity rate. That was a decrease from 203 new cases and a 6.9 percent positivity rate the prior week. If those numbers continue to decline, new local deaths should also presumably start to decrease – very soon.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new figures Monday showing a temporary hike in deaths nationally during what the CDC calls Weeks 30 to 34 of the pandemic, a period ending July 25. 

“The latest CDC COVIDView report shows the percentage of deaths attributed to COVID-19 increased for four weeks in July after being on the decline since mid-April. This percentage has decreased for the past 2 weeks but remains above the epidemic threshold,” the CDC said.

The report added that due to backlogs in death reporting, the numbers may continue to be high in the coming weeks. Florida on Friday relieved state medical examiners from the responsibility of confirming each presumed COVID-19 death, as had been required under disaster declarations.

The Miami Herald reports that the provision had been on the books since Hurricane Andrew in 1992, so medical examiners would certify deaths during a hurricane or other short-term, local disaster – not a months-long pandemic causing nearly 10,000 deaths statewide.

Going forward, attending physicians are now permitted to list COVID-19 as the cause of death, which should speed up reporting significantly, give families of the deceased some closure, and provide public health decision-makers more timely data to work with.

Meanwhile, Vero and county elected leaders, who failed to approve any sort of meaningful facemask regulations, have returned from their summer vacations to focus on distributing the nearly $7 million in federal CARES Act money allocated thus far to the county and its municipalities. That’s about a quarter of what the county expects to receive in the coming months.

The package includes money for first responders working amid the pandemic on our streets, in the jail and at the courthouse, plus $100,000 to Cleveland Clinic Indian River for rapid testing of first responders and essential workers, $100,000 to Treasure Coast Community Health for community testing, and $75,000 earmarked for personal protective equipment (PPE) for businesses to prevent an upsurge of cases.

The Indian River County Health Department is set to get $400,000 of the money, and $4,000 is going to the Medical Examiner for temporary staffing to deal with paperwork. Municipalities within the county are using $1.8 million of the total for local needs. $40,000 went to the Town of Indian River Shores.

The balance of the dollars are intended to help mop up the economic destruction COVID-19 has wrought among our families and small businesses, with $250,000 of county money plus $120,000 of Vero Beach’s share set aside for small business grants of up to $5,000 each; $250,000 to be spent on layoff aversion and worker training; and $1.5 million in direct aid to residents via local nonprofit organizations.

Under the current plan, the Treasure Coast Food Bank gets $400,000 to coordinate food support programs, the Senior Resource Association gets $125,000 to help with Meals on Wheels delivery and shopping assistance for seniors and the homebound, and the United Way of Indian River County will get $975,000 to distribute to those in need of mental health services, technology assistance for telework and distance learning. The money will also go for rent, mortgage and utility payments, support for veterans, and childcare scholarships for parents returning to work.