Walton commissioners criticize lack of state data on COVID ‘cure rate’

Jim Thompson

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — Faced with a dramatic rise in the number of positive local COVID-19 cases, Walton County commissioners pushed back this week at a lack of state data on the number of recoveries from the serious respiratory illness continuing to spread across the country and the world, saying it created a skewed picture of the local impacts of the illness.

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As of June 23, the date of the commission’s most recent meeting before their Tuesday session, the county had recorded 188 positive COVID-19 cases, comprising 163 residents and 25 non-residents. As of Tuesday’s commission’s meeting, the number of positive cases had risen well above 600 cases, and as of Thursday the number stood at 693 positive cases, comprising 624 residents and 69 non-residents. Sixty-four of those cases were recorded in connection with a recent appearance of COVID-19 at the Walton County Jail.

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In addition, the county now has recorded its 10th death from COVID-19, the first death outside of the Chautauqua Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in DeFuniak Springs, where all nine of the county’s previous deaths occurred. The latest death, reported Tuesday, was a 76-year-old man living in DeFuniak Springs.

At their Tuesday meeting, during a presentation from Holly Holt, administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Walton County, the clearly frustrated commissioners voted unanimously to create a resolution to send to the state government asking for information on what Commissioner Tony Anderson called the “cure rate” for COVID-19.

Assistant County Attorney Heather Christmann told commissioners she would prepare a resolution for their review and possible action at their next regular meeting, set for July 28.

“How long is it taking for people to be cured, if they are being cured?” Anderson asked, illustrating the kind of information he wants from the state government. “How many people that had it are now testing negative? That’s information that the counties need ... .”

“A lot of this stuff just doesn’t seem fair,” Anderson said later in the discussion. “There’s got to be some truth in the reporting. That’s what people are frustrated with.”

“What is the recovery number?” asked Commissioner Melanie Nipper. “There’s got to be a recovery number. Why are we not getting that number? We can’t say 622 people (the number of positive COVID-19 cases as of Tuesday) are walking around positive in Walton County.”

The number of positive cases listed in various databases, cumulative since March, when Walton County recorded its first positive COVID-19 case “is very scary,” Nipper said, “but I don’t think it’s a legitimate number.”

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Holt agreed, telling Nipper, “There are some recovered (cases of COVID-19,” but adding, “I don’t know what that number is.”

The reason, Holt continued, is a lack of a specific definition of what constitutes a recovered COVID-19 case.

“We don’t have the definition from the (Florida) Department of Health,” she explained. “There are various way to interpret recovery data. For some people, it’s the people that have gotten out of the hospital. For some people, it’s the ones that aren’t testing positive anymore, they’re testing negative. Not everybody’s retested, so the definition is unclear ... .”

“The thing that concerns me is we keep asking for information and we get little or no information, and the governor’s taking a hands-off position, (saying) we’re going to let the locals deal with it,” said Commission Chairman Bill Chapman.

“... So here we are,” Chapman continued, “lay people trying to figure out a serious medical decision, as to what’s the proper action. With tainted information, or a lack of information, it makes it very difficult, and Tallahassee (the state government) needs to understand that, the feds need to understand that, because it’s getting frustrating for all of us.”

Holt, while agreeing that recovery data is important to understanding the local impact of COVID-19, and pledging to commissioners that she would continue to seek a recovery definition from the state, also tried Tuesday to focus the commission’s attention on the currently rising number of positive COVID-19 tests in the county.

“I know the recovery data is very important,” she said, “but one of the things I do want to stress is that we have a huge amount of new positives, regardless of the recovery data ... that have happened here in the last few weeks, for whatever reason.”

Holt went on to concede that some of the increase in positive cases is due to increased testing, but the county’s own contact tracing points to another factor.

“What I’m hearing more about is contacts in the family (of some people who have contracted COVID-19),” Holt said.

Once a case enters a single household, Holt pointed out, it’s very difficult to practice the social distancing that is a major public health strategy for slowing the spread of the illness.

In related developments Tuesday, after Holt told commissioners the current wait for results from COVID-19 tests is stretching to as long as 10 days, commissioners quizzed her on the possibility of getting more rapid tests into the county.

Currently, the county health department, which is handling the majority of COVID-19 testing, uses the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test, and not the antigen test which can produce results in 15 minutes.

Some local private healthcare providers have the antigen test, but are having problems in acquiring the reagents (materials needed to cause a required chemical reaction) for those tests, Holt told commissioners.

As a federally qualified health center, the county health department does have some authority to get the rapid tests, Holt said, and is now working with the state to determine which of the tests it can buy.

The health department has some money for the tests, Holt added, but likely will need additional fiscal support from the county to make the tests widely available locally.

Also Tuesday, even as they were criticizing the state government in connection with COVID-19, commissioners punted on a citizens-driven request to implement a countywide mask mandate to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Expressing some concerns about whether such a mandate could be enforced, commissioners opted to wait until July 28 to take up the issue, after Christmann has prepared a report for their review and possible action.

Meanwhile, a number of county and municipal governments across Florida have enacted various forms of mask mandates.