The Florida Keys on Thursday had one new COVID-19-related death and set a daily record for the number of cases reported, as the island chain braces for an influx of tourists for the long Fourth of July weekend.
The Keys reported 26 additional cases of the deadly disease, according to the Florida Department of Health, for a total of 296 cases. Five people along the island chain have died from the virus.
The person who died this week was a 67-year-old man who had “underlying chronic conditions,” according to the health department. It wasn’t immediately known where he had lived in the Keys.
On May 31, the day before the Keys took down two highway checkpoints to keep out visitors, the region had 108 known cases.
Florida also set a new daily record Thursday with 10,109 new cases. The statewide total is 169,106.
“Basically, I shudder,” said Dr. Jack Norris, who has been on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis in the Keys. “I’m getting frustrated with people out there who want to deny this really exists.”
Norris said Keys hospitals are straining to do the routine — “babies being born, heart attacks — and then throw in COVID on top of it.”
A lot of people don’t even know they have COVID-19, Norris said.
The day before news of the new cases was released, Monroe County Mayor Heather Carruthers told a local radio news show host that officials have not ruled out bringing back the highway checkpoints.
“It’s not something that we want to do, but we’re not taking it off the table,” Carruthers told Bill Becker of the U.S. 1 Radio News Network.
Also, the Keys’ tourism bureau on July 1 stopped advertising Monroe as a destination vacation.
The most significant fear, county leaders said, is a small number of hospital beds in the Keys for coronavirus cases if there is a significant rise in admissions.
“We are pausing our advertising efforts for about two weeks in an abundance of caution to monitor infection and potential hospitalization rates,” said Stacey Mitchell, the director of the Tourist Development Council in a June 27 statement. ‘“We’ll regroup with county officials shortly before that period ends to discuss the situation and plan accordingly.
“We’re working closely with the county to ensure the health of our residents and visitors as well as the Keys’ tourism-based economy,” Mitchell said. “It’s important to remember that the TDC’s marketing efforts are always targeted to attract overnight visitors, not day-trippers.”
Since the pandemic began in March, 23 people infected with COVID-19 have been hospitalized in the Keys, said Alison Kerr, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health in Monroe County. According to the latest health department numbers, there are fewer than five people currently in the county’s three hospitals sick with the virus.
Carruthers said in the radio interview that hospitalization rates are at the top of what leaders are monitoring when considering more serious steps to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the Keys.
“The thing we’re looking at most closely is the hospitalization rates, because if we get to a point where we’re seeing that start to accelerate and our hospitals can’t provide care for COVID patients as well as people who have heart attacks and babies and accidents, then we’re going to have to take more drastic action,” Carruthers said.
However, on an online conference call meeting organized by the TDC Thursday afternoon, County Administrator Roman Gastesi said he’s optimistic hospitalizations will likely not rise to the point of needing to shut down the Keys again. But he warned that businesses and individuals need to follow protocols such a social-distancing, hand-washing and masks-wearing, and businesses also must make sure their customers do as well.
“My guess is they’ll not go back up,” Gastesi said about the checkpoints. “It depends on what you all do. It’s in your hands.”
Gastesi agreed with Carruthers that hospitalizations are the key indicators of danger. The county has a limited number of beds. The Keys have about 150 beds and between 20 and 25 intensive care unit beds.
“If we start running out of those it’s really time to get nervous,” Gastesi said. “The first thing I do is scroll down to hospitalizations. That’s really the number that’s going to drive our decision.”
How to help
Pointing fingers at who’s to blame for the spread, such as blaming tourists, isn’t productive, said Bob Eadie, administrator of the state Department of Health.
“People testing positive are getting younger,” Eadie said during the Zoom meeting with county officials and business owners Thursday that drew more than 200. “The disease is not striking as many elderly as we’ve seen before.”
In the Keys, the average age of a COVID-19 patient is 47, and the ages range from 2 to 100, according to state reports.
Gastesi asked business owners to make sure customers are wearing masks. The county has received about 43 complaints about people not following the social distancing rules. So far, four of those cases are headed to court, he said.
“We’re out there, we’re working over the weekend,” Gastesi said.
Eadie also said Keys residents need to ask visitors to respect the safety guidelines.
“The only thing we have right now to stop the spread of the disease is for individuals to take responsibility for their own health,” Eadie said. “The cases I’ve seen are by and large people not adhering to what they need to do.”
Shannon Weiner, director of Monroe Emergency Management, said people who feel sick need to stay home.
“We all have a role to play,” Weiner said. “The important thing is we take personal responsibility for our health. If you need masks or you have businesses that need masks, the Department of Health and Emergency Management have masks for distribution. Feel free to call our office.”
That number is 305-289-6018, she said.
Visitors will see a big change on Key West’s Duval Street during the holiday weekend
All Keys cities have now canceled their July 4 fireworks as COVID cases rise in Monroe