COVID down but not out, Okaloosa Health Department director warns

Tom McLaughlin
Northwest Florida Daily News

FORT WALTON BEACH — Okaloosa County is seeing a steady decline in several key matrices by which the prevalence and spread of COVID-19 are measured, but county Health Department director Dr. Karen Chapman is warning residents "not to let your guard down yet." 

"It does not mean we are out of the woods yet," Chapman warned officials in her most recent coronavirus briefing.

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"The question remains open if the downward trend we are seeing now will persist or if Spring Break and the start of summer will see a surge of more cases, especially as the percentage of new cases attributable to the variants becomes greater," she wrote.

Chapman also noted that Okaloosa County is experiencing no shortage of available vaccine at this time, and that some recent Health Department vaccination clinics have not even filled to capacity. She urged all who are eligible to make an appointment to be vaccinated.

Dr. Karen Chapman, director of the Florida Department of Health in Okaloosa County, talks in 2017 in her office.

Through the first 21 days of March, Chapman reported, both the number of cases reported each day and the seven-day average daily case count continue to dwindle. Daily cases have dropped from a March 1 high of 79 to less than 20 between March 19-22. The daily positive test total reached 22 on March 23, statistics show.

The percentage of Okaloosa County residents tested for COVID-19 who are returning positive results has dropped to about 10% and seems to be trending toward the 5% goal set by the CDC, Chapman reported.

Okaloosa hospitalizations and ICU admissions also continued to decline during the past three weeks, the Health Department director reported, and COVID-19 patients now make up less than 3% of all hospitalizations.

The county's ICU units continue to operate at maximum capacity, according to a report issued Tuesday by Okaloosa Public Safety Director Patrick Maddox, but only four of the 57 beds in use were occupied by COVID-19 patients.

Of the 344 Okaloosa County residents thus far lost to COVID-19, 160 were residents or staff at long-term care facilities. But Chapman was able to report this week that no LTC residents in the county are presently battling the virus.

"In the past two weeks there have been no hospitalizations for or deaths from COVID-19 to long-term care facility residents," Chapman said in her report. "This is excellent news."

There was more good news out of the county's public schools, and Crestview High School was able to shed the mantle of No. 1 in the state for highest number of cases during this school year. 

"Okaloosa public schools (school district and charter) had 20 cases of COVID-19 reported from five elementary schools, four middle schools, three high schools, and the district office," Chapman reported. "This is a 52% reduction from two weeks ago."

Chapman said 18 of those who tested positive were students and two were staff members.

"As in the community, our public schools are seeing an ongoing decline in cases in students and staff," she said. 

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Chapman also was able to claim successes on the vaccination front. She reported more than 60,000 doses of vaccine have been provided in Okaloosa County in the past three months.

"As of March 20, 22.4% of the population 16 years and older in Okaloosa County has received one or more doses of the vaccine and 15% are fully vaccinated," she said.

Among those 65 years and older, 71% have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 55% are fully vaccinated, she reported.

Additionally, about 30% of those between the ages of 60-64; 15% of those age 55-59; and 13% of residents age 50-54 have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, the report said.

"As of March 22, 2021, all persons 50 years of age or older are eligible to receive the vaccine," Chapman wrote. Those previously deemed eligible to receive the vaccine remain eligible.

"All the COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective in preventing severe disease, hospitalization, and death," Chapman said in her report. "So, when it is your turn, even if you have had COVID-19 in the past year, sign up to get the first COVID-19 vaccine offered to you." 

The Health Department has not filled several vaccination clinics conducted during the past three weeks, Chapman said. 

"Caution should not be thrown to the wind," she warned. "It is too early to tell what sort of seasonality we will experience with this virus and probably too early to know the impact of vaccination since we still have months to go to reach even 70% herd immunity."