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COVID-19 cases soar, but fewer are hospitalized

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of July 23, 2020)

Indian River County had one major positive development this week – our current COVID-19 hospitalizations are way down, from 35 to a more manageable 21 patients.

The real-time, daily count of how many patients are hospitalized with COVID-19 is a hugely important number because just one week ago that number was stretching the Cleveland Clinic Indian River Hospital very thin.

Caring for pandemic patients is not so much a matter of bed space or equipment; the COVID unit requires significantly more staffing for the same number of patients.

“We have increased nurse staffing by 30 percent in our COVID units, which allows us to reduce the number of patients assigned to each nurse in both the ICU and non-ICU settings,” said hospital spokesperson Scott Samples. “We have also increased nursing supervision in the COVID units to ensure any needs that arise can be addressed in a timely manner.

“We have seen an increase in support staffing as well. That includes a 25 percent increase in environmental services staffing to assist in cleaning requirements, restock personal protective equipment and other needs. And we have increased our security staffing by 20 percent as we have limited access points into the hospital to ensure visitors have temperatures taken, are wearing masks and sanitizing hands before entry into our hospital,” Samples said.

The reduction in the number of COVID-19 patients means doctors and nurses can keep up with the numbers without reducing elective or non-emergency procedures.

“Indian River Hospital is not postponing nonessential procedures at this time. We will continue to monitor the situation closely,” Samples said.

But the county’s positive coronavirus count soared by nearly 700 cases – or about 70 percent –  in the past 14 days. In that same two-week period, eight people have died of COVID-19 complications, raising the county’s death toll to 25, more than half of those patients residing in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

Several facilities continue to contend with double-digit COVID-19 outbreaks this week but the most embattled nursing home newly listed on state reports seemed to be Sea Breeze Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, a Citadel Facility on 15th Avenue just west of the hospital in Vero.

As of Monday’s report, Sea Breeze had eight patient cases and 16 staffers with coronavirus. The administrator of Sea Breeze, Lordins “Jeff” Geffrard, said “I don’t want to comment,” and promised to try to have someone call us from the corporate office of the parent company, Atlantic Care Acquisition LLC.

As of press time, no one from Atlantic had called. If they had, we would have asked about recent writeups on the website for deficiencies in care, including a Jan. 31 inspection which described the facility’s inability to control a norovirus outbreak. The report states several Sea Breeze staffers in supervisory roles claimed they had not received the proper training on various aspects of infection control.

But nursing homes and assisted-living facilities represent only 163 cases or less than 10 percent of Indian River County’s COVID-19 problem. Outside of these facilities, the other 90 percent of the problem is people testing positive at faster rates across every ZIP code in the county.

The barrier island 32963 ZIP code still had the lowest case count of 76 as of press time, with the Vero Beach 32960 ZIP code just across the causeways having the most at 423 cases and Fellsmere next at 307 cases, both areas now colored in red on the Florida Department of Health’s COVID-19 Dashboard.

In addition to reaching 17 of the county’s 24 senior care facilities, the virus has closed restaurants, and infected employees at the Vero Beach Post Office hub, the Indian River County Jail, and nearly every local first-responder agency.

The rate of positive tests in Indian River County, which barely crept up over 5 percent this spring, is now 8 percent for all cases back to March, and over the past seven days has ranged from 8.1 percent to 13.2 percent.

On a slightly more positive note, personal protective equipment is now much more widely available, and testing capacity is greater than it was (though the processing of tests is taking much longer).

The beleaguered Indian River Health Department this past week was allocated $927,000 in federal CARES Act money to fund two epidemiologists, 10 nurses, nine data clerks, two call center employees, one health educator and four other employees, totaling 28 positions.

Until a safe and proven COVID-19 vaccine is mass-produced and widely available, the focus is still on not getting sick in the first place, and not spreading the virus to others. That seems to be where Indian River County is lagging behind in some type of delusion that things aren’t dire enough here to require making masks mandatory.

Public health experts almost unanimously say that mask wearing is the best bet – short of everyone staying home – to avoid another statewide lockdown of sorts.

Both the Indian River Hospital District Board and the Senior Resource Association have petitioned the county to reconsider its failed 3-2 vote against a mask mandate, so maybe next time Chairwoman Susan Adams and Commissioner Peter O’Bryan will be able to reel in Commissioner Tim Zorc as a third vote.

Since his rejection of the mask mandate, Zorc has taken a few lumps on the issue from political challenger Joe Earman, a career firefighter who has staked out a strong position in favor of a mask mandate. Zorc and Earman will face off in the Republican primary in August.