Walton County commissioners to decide on allocation of federal COVID-19 response dollars

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — Walton County commissioners will meet at 10 a.m. Wednesday to decide how to spend $3.2 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding, part of a $2.2 trillion nationwide economic relief package.

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The $3.2 million in CARES Act funding now available is one-quarter of the funding which eventually will come to the county, County Administrator Larry Jones told commissioners at their meeting Tuesday.

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Jones brought initial proposals for use of the money to the commission, but asked that commissioners allow the staff to delve more deeply into the proposals before it makes any final recommendations.

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“We need some time to digest these internally,” Jones said, “... to see exactly which of these would fit into the CARES funding ... and which ones we could recommend that the board move forward on.”

“These are big terms,” Commission Chairman Bill Chapman agreed, adding that he and the commission “need to get it drilled down,” before making any final decisions.

In part of the initial proposal presented to commissioners Tuesday, the Florida Department of Health in Walton County is asking for $475,000 for two mobile medical units; nearly $231,000 to hire five licensed practical nurses, slightly more than $50,000 for heating and air conditioning improvements and air quality assessments at four sites, $25,000 for two “negative air pressure” rooms to prevent cross-contamination, and $6,000 for reusable respiratory protection suits.

Also according to information presented to the commissioners, some of the money could go to Stone Clinical Laboratories, a medical testing firm with facilities in Walton County that has been among the partners to which the local Health Department has turned for help.

In a series of emails between Jones and Christopher Ridgeway, CEO and founder of Stone Clinical Laboratories, Ridgeway indicated he was working on a plan for the county had a number of questions, including the volume of COVID-19 testing that the county might expect and whether the county would be willing to sign a long-term contract with Stone.

Discussion of the allocation of CARES Act funding comes against the backdrop of a steeply rising number of positive COVID-19 cases in Walton County, although the number of people who have recovered from the serious respiratory illness remains elusive.

In her regular presentation to commissioners on the current status of COVID-19, Holly Holt, administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Walton County, said Tuesday that as of that moment, 9,438 COVID-19 tests had been administered in the county, although not all of them were performed on county residents. Holt said her numbers reflect the tests administered by Stone Clinical Laboratories, tests not reflected in other data sources on local COVID-19 testing.

Of the 9,438 tests administered since March, Holt said, 1,066 (972 county residents, 94 non-residents) were positive, for a 12% positivity rate. The age range of people who have contracted COVID-19 in the county runs from 6 months to 101 years, she added.

Because the state has not yet settled on a definition for a COVID-19 recovery, there is no way to determine how many of those who have contracted the illness since March have recovered.

As of the commission’s previous meeting July 14, the county had recorded 622 positive COVID-19 cases from 6,610 tests, for a 9.4% positivity rate.

The county has recorded 12 deaths from the coronavirus, Holt added.

Positive cases are being seen “all across the county,” Holt said.

“We’e done a lot of testing this month,” Holt told commissioners “and we’ve been able to do that with partners.” Those partners have included the county’e emergency medical and fire and rescue personnel, and its emergency management department, she said.

“And we are testing everybody,” Holt said. “We test individuals driving in from other counties.”

She noted that some Walton County residents go to Bay or Okaloosa counties for testing.

“We’re working as a group to test our individuals in the Panhandle,” Holt said.