Palm Beach County leaders are reportedly in the process of putting together a response plan in case of a coronavirus case spike, as restaurants and shops get back to business.
The county is developing statistical benchmarks that could indicate a resurgence of the virus, thereby potentially leading to a return to restrictions or even another lockdown.
Commissioner Melissa McKinlay is surprised the state Department of Health has not created such metrics, despite Palm Beach being the state’s third most-populated county.
“It was frightening to learn that something similar does not exist — at least to the knowledge of our public health director — of any such document at the state or federal level,” she explains.
Draft benchmarks being developed by county officials would flag a resurgence whenever five-day increases occur with the testing positivity rate, as well as with the COVID-19 death rate and hospital admissions. They also include more subjective measures to consider, such as the availability of testing, contact-tracing capabilities, and social-distancing compliance.
The commission plans to review those measures collectively to determine whether there is an actual resurgence at any point.
Palm Beach County began allowing restaurant dining rooms and retailers to reopen on May 11 with reduced capacity. Beaches in the county reopened last Monday.
Dr. Alina Alonso, director of Palm Beach County’s health department, told commissioners last week that the county is still not testing enough people or ensuring that social distancing is actually occurring in restaurants and other reopened businesses.
“We are supposed to be monitoring to assure social distancing is taking place,” Alonso added. “It is not. The way they are doing it now, we could have this triple in a week.”
The benchmarks for reopening in Gov. DeSantis’ plan include a downward trend of flu-like and COVID-19-like illnesses; downward trajectory of documented COVID-19 cases or a downward trend of the percentage of tests that are positive; and a capability to treat patients in hospitals and a robust testing program for health care workers.
— Palm Beach County (@pbcgov) May 23, 2020
“The state should continually review any sudden unexplained spikes in the number of COVID-19 cases, while factoring in increases in testing and monitor any increases in hospitalizations,” the governor’s plan states. “In extreme situations, the governor may deploy a geographically targeted response in consultation with public health officials.”
Palm Beach County Commissioner Hal Valeche, who was among those who pushed to reopen the county, wants to see more detailed metrics. To that end, he has contacted the governor’s chief of staff asking for more guidance to be developed.
“Subjective decisions about this aren’t appropriate,” says Valeche. “You need to have an objective measure. We have made too much progress to let this get out of control.”
Officials in Miami-Dade and Broward counties say they currently do not have benchmarks to trigger another lockdown, although they continue to track statistics on new cases, testing, hospitalizations and deaths.
Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner believes metrics are useful, but does not want to create mandatory triggers that would put the county back into a lockdown.
“I am not comfortable with that,” he explains. “We can have the machine run the county then. Ultimately, it is the policymakers that have to authorize it.”
Dr. Alonso warns, “I want to make sure if we are not going in the right direction we can put a brake on it before it is too late.”