The mystery of a COVID-19 outbreak that caused more than 200 infections in DeSoto County on Nov. 18 has been solved — at least partially.
Contact tracing found that DeSoto Correctional Institution accounted for the dramatic rise, said Jeffrey Tambasco, director of DeSoto County’s Emergency Management Agency.
“We can get only that it was a correctional issue,” said Tambasco, whose agency depends on the county office of the state-run Department of Health for COVID-19 contact tracing and the results of that tracing.
“The facility was looking at several mitigation strategies to control not only future outbreaks, but the one that is taking place,” Tambasco said in an interview.
The infection numbers don’t add up in a way that give a full picture of the November outbreak’s origins.
The Department of Health in DeSoto and elsewhere has engaged in a public information blackout on COVID-19 contact tracing for several months. It has, however, been reporting DeSoto County infections on its coronavirus surveillance dashboard. The dashboard reported about 225 cases on Nov. 18.
It is only recently that the Department of Health has disclosed to Emergency Management what it thinks is the cause of the Nov. 18 spike that marked a rise in cases — which was 200 or more above DeSoto County’s typical infection rate.
Just how many of the approximately 225 cases reported for Nov. 18 came from the prison is unclear. “I do not have this information,” Tambasco said.
“You will need to contact DOH for specifics.”
Although not asked about specific cases, the Health Department in DeSoto based its refusal to provide tracing information to the public on a policy that prohibits disclosing of information on specific cases.
“It is imperative that we keep certain details regarding personal identifying information confidential,” said Brandi Newhouse, Health Department planning consultant, in an email.
An extensive investigation by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper reported in early December the department received an order in September to stop making public statements about COVID-19 until after the Nov. 3 presidential election. News releases or media posts must not mention the virus, the Sun-Sentinel reported the September order stated.
While Tambasco said Health Department attributed the spike of more than 200 cases to the DeSoto Correctional Institution, the state Department of Corrections says its tally of positive cases at the prison is 214 since March, when the pandemic set in. That would include 122 infected inmates reported on July 21.
“Currently, only one inmate is in medical isolation at DeSoto due to symptoms,” Kayla McLaughlin, Corrections Department press secretary, said in a Dec. 16 email.
“Statewide, 97% of inmates have now been cleared from medical isolation and returned to appropriate housing (and) 94% of staff have been cleared to return to work.”
On the staff side, 35 workers at the DeSoto prison have been infected with COVID-19 through Dec. 16, according to the Department of Corrections.
Until this week, Tambasco could only speculate on the origins of the outbreak. He previously suggested enhanced and increased testing countywide could be behind the high numbers. But other nearby counties that have stepped up both the number and quality of testing have not shown increases anywhere close to DeSoto County’s one-day count on Nov. 18.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, the county performed fewer than a half-dozen tests daily. That count later increased to about 30 a day and has now reached around 100, according to Tambasco.
He theorized winter visitors could be part of the cause. However, only 12 non-residents are among cases reported on the surveillance dashboard through Dec. 17.
Tambasco said he has received no indication of widespread COVID-19 among migrant agriculture workers. He noted most of the workers live in private dwellings.
Elder care facilities have been a frequent source of COVID-19 outbreaks around the country. But Tambasco did not cite any elder-care facilities that could have contributed to the unusually high virus infection numbers for Nov. 18.
DeSoto County’s six public schools have had sporadic increases in infections among students and staff. The numbers are far below those that state health officials reported for Nov. 18, however.
Given that the Department of Corrections says its 214-inmate case count spans from March through the present, it would seem no full explanation for the one-day rise has been provided. Tambasco claimed, however, that the DOH has been thorough in the contact tracing information it gives emergency management officials.
“We have no indication of them holding back information,” he said.
The emergency management chief insisted DOH gets the tracing data information to the county “as soon as it gets” the data.
Health officials, he said, are “using every resource we have to ascertain the source (of COVID-19 infections) and keep people safe.”
In the meantime, the county is busy planning distribution of vaccines for the virus, Tambasco said. “We’re ramping up.”