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Health officials urge seniors to avoid large gatherings and close contact


As the number of cases of coronavirus continued to swell, Gov. Ron DeSantis Monday declared a state of emergency for Florida. And the target audience of the most pointed advice from health officials was the state’s seniors – the 20 percent of the population likely to suffer the most from COVID-19. 

People who are older or have underlying health conditions – heart disease, lung disease, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease and immune disorders – disproportionately need hospitalization to battle the virus.

“Early data suggest older people are twice as likely to have serious COVID-19 illness,” the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams said. Young, healthy adults and kids can get infected and spread the virus, but they rarely have a bad case that requires a hospital stay. Those people should stay home from school or work when ill, and be very careful to avoid infecting an older or medically vulnerable person.

But Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, had different advice for seniors. 

During the CDC briefing Monday, she gave seniors the same tough love she gave her own parents who are “in their 80s.”

“Have enough household items and food on hand so that you will be prepared to stay home for a period of time,” she said.

 “Take everyday precautions, like avoiding close contact with people who are sick, cleaning your hands often and avoid touching high-touch surfaces in public places. Avoid crowds, especially in poorly ventilated spaces.”

It will take neighbors and families and friends working together to support older residents and those who are medically less equipped to fight the virus. Messonnier said caregivers should have a plan, and a backup plan in case the caregiver gets sick as well.

“Everyone has a role to play in helping to protect our family members, friends, colleagues and neighbors who are at most risk,” she said.

“If you’re elderly or have an underlying health condition, don’t go on a cruise and don’t go on a long flight,” DeSantis added.

Basically, he said, avoid most close contact and large gatherings of people.

The goal of public health doctors and government officials is to “flatten the epidemic curve,” meaning to slow COVID-19 down so it won’t overwhelm our healthcare system.

Messonnier said people should be prepared to live with COVID-19 as a part of their lives for the balance of 2020 and into 2021.

She said epidemiologists now have tens of thousands of documented case studies and databases full of demographic information, medical histories and treatment outcomes – tools that China did not have in the first months of the onslaught of this new virus.

The CDC, state health officials and the World Health Organization all agree that the numbers clearly show that about 20 percent of people are at risk for serious complications, or even death.

Florida state cabinet officials, meanwhile, are clamping focusing on the most vulnerable elderly, those in Florida’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities (see related story on Page 1).

DeSantis said he would be starting with facilities that have had issues or violations in the past – which would appear to include nursing homes in Vero Beach – and making sure the precautions are being taken to avoid outbreaks like the one in Washington state that has resulted in multiple deaths of patients and the quarantine of numerous healthcare workers.

DeSantis said his emergency declaration would allow for out-of-state doctors and nurses to come into Florida to help, if needed. The emergency declaration would also permit patients taking “maintenance drugs” to get their prescriptions for a 30-day supply of daily medications filled ahead of schedule to save them trips out to the pharmacy.

Under a state of emergency, Florida also could get quicker access to supplies, including protective equipment, and if conditions warrant it, to bring in National Guard troops and medic units to assist with logistics. “They’re standing by ready to go,” DeSantis said.

Florida Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees said testing capacity has greatly increased now that two commercial laboratories, LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics, have been brought in to process COVID-19 tests.

This will supplement what is being done at the three state labs in Miami, Tampa and Jacksonville.

Right now, each test has to be performed manually at the lab, but the State of New York is pushing the Food and Drug Administration to approve the use of automated tests to speed turnaround time.

This would give public health workers the best shot at contacting and isolating exposed people in time to curb further infections.

Eventually, home test kits will be available so patients don’t even have to visit a doctor to get a diagnosis. Development and testing of medications is in the works, as is a Novel Coronavirus vaccine.

But National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Anthony Fauci says a widely usable vaccine is still about a year and a half away.

After small-scale testing on humans, the vaccine would need further testing before it is approved for mass production and distribution.