Okaloosa County struggles to defeat COVID-19

Tom McLaughlin
Northwest Florida Daily News

Okaloosa County just can't seem to get a grip on COVID-19.

On Tuesday, the Florida Department of Health reported another 86 people in the county had tested positive, and 21 percent of all people who had been tested the day before turned out to have the disease. 

The Centers for Disease Control considers a 5 percent daily positivity rate an acceptable goal, but Okaloosa County has rarely even flirted with that number. On Sunday the positivity rate was 11.5 percent, Saturday 9.02 percent, Friday 22.97 percent and Thursday 15.83 percent.

In the two-week period beginning Oct. 27, Okaloosa has averaged a 14.5 percent positivity rate. For the past week, the county is averaging 77 new COVID-19 cases per day.

"Okaloosa continues to have a high burden of COVID-19 disease transmission in the community," Okaloosa County Health Department Director Dr. Karen Chapman said in a report issued Tuesday afternoon. "And that burden is increasing." 

Much of the COVID-19 spread is being seen in the county's public schools and long-term care facilities.

On Tuesday, there were 62 cases being reported among residents at Crestview Rehabilitation Center and another 30 among staff.

The Okaloosa County branch of the Florida Department of Health could not release specific information about the outbreak other than report raw data, according to agency spokeswoman Allison McDaniel. 

An additional 21 residents at Fort Walton Beach Developmental Center and seven at Fort Walton Beach Rehabilitation have tested positive. Five staff members also have tested positive between the two sites.

The county has now reported 709 cases at its long-term care facilities. That number is 10 percent of all cases reported since the start of the pandemic. Comparatively, the state average is 6 percent of all cases reported being associated with long-term care facilities. In Walton County the percentage of total cases that have been reported at long-term care facilities is 4 percent.

In her Tuesday report, Chapman also noted a continuous increase in the number COVID-19 hospitalizations in Okaloosa County over the past three weeks.

"COVID-19 hospitalizations have averaged about 31 per day for the past two-week period, five more per day than (last week's) report," she said.

In the last seven days, COVID-19 hospitalizations have averaged 37 per day, Chapman reported, and ICU bed use for COVID-19 patients has increased in the past week to an average of 11 beds per day, or 20 percent of all ICU beds in the county. 

"COVID-19 patients over the past week have occupied 9.3% of all staffed hospital beds," she said. 

Reporting on COVID-19 in Okaloosa County's schools lags a week behind other data.  Chapman has continued to stress that virus transmission is occurring within the school system, and that high schools are being hit particularly hard. In the last report at the beginning of November, 167 students and 74 school staff members had tested positive for COVID-19.  

On Saturday, the number of Okaloosa County's COVID-19-related deaths jumped by eight, from 130 to 138. In his daily report, Okaloosa Public Safety Director Patrick Maddox said the actual date of death in some of the cases ranged back as far as Oct. 11. He said some of the cases had taken longer to confirm as COVID-19-related fatalities than others.

The death toll has since risen to 139, with 68 of those deaths having been residents of long-term care facilities. 

"Many key metrics are trending in the wrong direction. Rising cases, sustained testing positivity rates above 10 percent, increases in hospitalizations, and ongoing transmission of the virus in our schools and long-term care facilities," Chapman said in summarizing this week's findings by the Department of Health.

"It will only get worse as we push deeper into fall and winter," she said. "My previous reports have indicated various actions we need to take. It will take leadership from all of us to turn this crisis around in Okaloosa." 

As of Tuesday, Okaloosa County had reported 7,109 COVID-19 cases and 139 deaths. Walton County had reported 3,047 cases and 32 deaths and Santa Rosa County had reported 6,264 cases and 89 deaths.