The most recent increase in local coronavirus cases is occurring in nursing homes and hospitals, Health Chief Joe Pepe said Tuesday during a Charlotte County Commission meeting.

Commissioner Chris Constance appeared to disagree, referring several times to a reported increase in community spread.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” said Constance, who is a medical doctor.

Charlotte County and state are still conducting mass testing at nursing homes, Pepe told the Sun. This has resulted in finding 49 positive staff and 81 positive residents so far. The total number of positive cases since March 1 in Charlotte County was 346 as of Tuesday afternoon with 35 deaths. He estimated about five new cases a day for the estimated population of 180,000.

Pepe said he believes the impression of an increase comes from a recent rise in people reporting coronavirus symptoms at hospitals and to paramedics. Pepe told commissioners this could be related to patients and emergency technicians becoming more aware of possible symptoms.

“I think there’s a lot of general anxiety in the community,” Pepe told the board.

Pepe also said that he expects the new free and open testing sites in Charlotte County to open later this week in two locations, but he could not name where those sites are. They will be open four hours a day, five days a week.

Constance said he is glad there is a plan to limit the number of people.

That plan, Pepe said, is to request residents use a self-screening website that will be set up soon. This site will urge people to use other options first, such as their primary care provider. The site will also state the highest priority is for people with symptoms or who have been exposed to someone with coronavirus. It will allow residents to schedule an appointment at a drive-thru site, to prevent large groups from assembling.

“The goal is to make sure we’re doing this safely and responsibly, and we’re not burning through supplies,” Pepe said.

No one will be barred from a test, however, Pepe said. Indeed, reports from New York City are that most of the newest cases are from people who were staying home, according to the New York Times, causing experts to question how people are getting infected.

There is a limit in supplies, Pepe said.

“If we go to mass testing, we really don’t have the supplies for that,” he said.

Those supplies will be strained also by hospitals as they start to open up for non-emergency surgeries, Constance said. As a plastic surgeon, he estimated hospitals could start running through 200-250 tests a day for emergency room visits and elective surgeries.

In other reopening options, commissioners agreed to take it slow with pools after hearing from Community Services Director Tommy Scott, who said no neighboring counties, including Manatee, have opened their public pools yet.

The county is still working out a way to provide summer day camp, Scott said, and to allow vendors to rent out beach chairs and kayaks at local beaches, plus allow beach yoga.

With the status of the virus unclear in the county, commissioners struggled to reach consensus on a resolution urging Gov. Ron DeSantis to adopt more generous re-opening strategies for the business communities. Constance said he supports the governor’s more restricted approach and could not support the resolution.

“I’m more a doctor than a commissioner sitting here,” he said.

Among the complaints in the resolution is that DeSantis limited restaurants to 25% capacity while his task force recommended 50%. Also, he has still ordered vacation rentals to stay closed while hotels and motels have remained open.

Commissioner Bill Truex said this has seriously affected local rentals.

The board found consensus with Constance finally by removing the word “immediately” from their resolution, thus not asking DeSantis to act immediately.


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