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Councilman finds contact tracing is another farce

Photo: Vero Beach City Councilman Rey Neville

Vero Beach City Councilman Rey Neville began asking the County Health Department months ago for specifics about how COVID-19 contact tracing is performed, but it took him getting sick from the virus to find out how it works (or doesn’t).

Neville, a 78-year-old Central Beach resident with a history of asthma, felt ill on June 21. When the sniffles turned into a fever, he called the Cleveland Clinic nurse triage line, got a testing appointment, was tested on June 26, and was notified of his positive result on June 29.

Out of a sense of personal duty and concern, Neville notified his close contacts when it became apparent that he had more than a common cold. It’s a good thing he did, because the Health Department dropped the ball on contact tracing Neville and his recent travels about town.

Tuesday, June 30 was a City Council meeting day and Neville participated by telephone, tying up his line for a couple hours. After announcing during that meeting that he had COVID-19, his phone was busy with calls from well-wishers, offers of help and even the media. During that time, Neville missed a phone call from the Health Department. (He did not discover that for another week.)

But the next day, July 1, the Health Department did not attempt to reach out to Neville again to initiate contact tracing. It also did not try the day after, July 2, or the following day, July 3, or the next day, July 4.

Neville first spoke to a contact tracer on Sunday, July 5 – a full 11 days after his COVID-19 test and six days after he got his positive result. But that’s not even the most concerning part.

“The only thing they wanted to know was my symptoms,” Neville said. “They did not ask where I’d been, or what I’d been doing, or if I’d been behaving.”

Though he had his contacts ready to provide, Neville was not asked for them. He was not even asked if he’d been diligently self-quarantining. “I’m frustrated by it because I thought that contact tracing was a component of what’s done by the Health Department,” Neville said.

When asked about the seemingly incomplete contact-tracing interview conducted with Neville, Health Department spokesperson Stacy Brock said each time someone tests positive the department conducts “an extensive epidemiological investigation in conjunction with the CDC” to find people who may need to isolate after exposure to the virus.

“This process is followed for all individuals who test positive in Florida.  In every COVID-19 epidemiological investigation, all individuals that may have been exposed are notified and given the proper guidance in order to care for themselves and to protect others,” Brock said, adding that she could not comment directly on Neville’s case.

“The department strives to protect the identity of individuals tested or affected by COVID-19, while also ensuring information necessary for the public health is available.”

Fortunately, Neville said he’s stayed home the whole time he’s been sick – except to go get tested on June 21. He has a support system, people who made it possible for him to stay home where he wasn’t infecting anyone. “I’m blessed with so many great friends, they bring something to me if I need it. I haven’t wanted for anything,” Neville said.

That’s not all Neville is grateful for. As of Monday afternoon, he’d gone 24 hours with no fever after a pretty rough weekend when he nearly had to go to the hospital. “I thought I was done for when I got that call that I tested positive. I thought that was it,” Neville said. “I had a low-grade fever for 10 days and something of a nasty cough.”

Neville said his days are somewhat of a blur, as the fever lingered, spiking up to 102. “I would get up and feel like I wanted to go straight to sleep. On Sunday I almost had to call 911, my oxygen went down to 87 percent, but I had a couple of nebulizer treatments and was able to get it back up in the 90s. Now I can talk in complete paragraphs without coughing.”

Before his personal experience with COVID-19, Neville was an outspoken advocate for the City of Vero Beach to do everything in its power to reopen the economy in a smart and careful way, to make sure that the community’s most vulnerable were protected.

Due to a technical glitch, Neville did not get to vote last week on a motion to require the wearing of masks in certain business settings. He was having trouble hearing what was going on, so he was trying to watch the meeting on livestream and participate at the same time. The 2-2 vote that failed would have been a 3-2 yes vote, inching closer to a mask mandate, had Neville voted.

“I’m not sure what happened, but that was a vote that I definitely wanted to participate in.” Neville said. “There’s a 15-second delay on the streaming of those meetings because they have to have time to do the closed captioning. I couldn’t hear and by the time it came up on the livestream video it was all over, the discussion had moved on. The problem is we don’t have a great way to communicate for someone who is absent from the council chambers.”

Now that he’s well, and Indian River County’s COVID-19 case count continues to mount, Neville is considering bringing the matter back up when he can attend in person.

“My belief is that it’s just absurd that we can’t ask people in our community to wear a mask,” Neville said. “The only way I see us getting out of this is to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. If we would do that, we could keep the infections down until we can get a vaccine. You can’t get it to zero, but you can get it to manageable rate.”