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COVID death toll doubles during August

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER & MICHELLE GENZ (Week of September 3, 2020)

As August came to a close, the daily number of new positive cases of COVID-19 here had dwindled to single digits and new hospitalizations were trending downward, but the death toll more than doubled in the month.

Indian River County saw a record 18 reported deaths during the last week of August alone.

Some of the 50 deaths reported in August were likely due to a backlog in paperwork, but when will this rising number slow down? More deaths were reported in August than in the prior five months combined.

Many of the 98 deaths came from local nursing homes.

In the past week, 11 more residents were reported to have died with COVID-19 in Vero’s two largest nursing homes. The combined death toll in Consulate of Vero and Palm Garden now stands at 25, and still, executives from both facilities are offering no explanation and no plan to ramp up infection control or testing.

Neither Consulate Health Care, a chain of 145 nursing homes based in Maitland, near Orlando, nor Palm Garden, based in Sarasota, returned emails or phone calls. Calls to directors of the local facilities were not returned.

One resident at Palm Garden reportedly told a friend who called that staff had not said anything about the deaths. Nor had they made clear to the residents the extent of the outbreak three weeks ago that left 22 residents infected who remained at the facility.

Even more puzzling was the online denial – signed by the executive director of the Vero facility, Edwin Rojas – that there were any cases in the building.

“Dear Palm Garden Friends and Family,” the online letter began. “As part of our aggressive plan to protect our residents and team members, we created dedicated observation areas and began testing for COVID-19 as far back as March 21st.

“Through this aggressive testing and planning, Palm Garden of Vero Beach is free of any COVID-19 cases.”

According to state reports, Palm Garden had two cases by April 30. There were 12 positive residents and 10 staff at the end of July, and more than two dozen infections at the site by Aug. 10.

That contradicts the letter on the Palm Garden website, which says any resident testing positive “is immediately transitioned to hospital where they are held until they test negative for COVID-19.”

A state report on deaths in long-term care shows Palm Garden with 12 residents having died. That report, which the facility itself provides numbers for, appeared online on Sunday.

The same report showed Consulate with 13 deaths.

Both figures dwarf the already tragic death toll at Sea Breeze, the smaller of the three poorly rated nursing homes that exist in the shadow of Cleveland Clinic Indian River Hospital. Sea Breeze, which at the beginning of August had close to 60 cases of COVID-19 between residents and staff, has had seven residents die.

The county added 565 new positive coronavirus cases in August, bringing the total to 2,835 as of press time Monday. Eighty-eight people were hospitalized in August after cases spiked in July, but the daily count of patients hospitalized with the virus has been less than 10 most days for the past couple of weeks.

“We have seen an encouraging trend this week of fewer COVID-19 hospitalizations,” said Cleveland Clinic Indian River spokesman Scott Samples.

On Monday afternoon, according to the State of Florida’s real-time hospitalization count, only five Indian River County residents were hospitalized with COVID-19 – an extremely good sign, even something to be celebrated if the county’s death rate wasn’t so high.

How many of the 98 people who succumbed to the virus have perished while in the hospital’s care? “We do not report information on deaths related to COVID-19,” Samples said.