SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. – Coronavirus cases are on the rise in Seminole County and bars near the University of Central Florida could be the source of at least some of those infections.
County leaders provided an update Wednesday morning, speaking from a pop-up testing site that was originally scheduled to appear in Lake Mary but was instead moved to Oviedo to address the hot spot there.
Current figures show a cumulative total of 867 cases in Seminole County with 128 hospitalizations and 13 deaths.
Donna Walsh, the health officer for the Florida Department of Health in Seminole County, said the numbers have been swelling at a more rapid pace in recent weeks when compared to the earlier rate.
“If we go to the first week of May, we had a total of 17 cases reported to us here in Seminole County. The second week 16. The third week 29 and the fourth week 29. From May 31 to June 6... we saw 40 cases,” Walsh said.
That number then multiplied.
“And then the very next week June 7 through 12, we have 213 cases reported to us here in Seminole County,” Walsh said. “Just in the last couple of days, June 14th to 16th of this week, we’ve had 115 cases reported to us.”
While the numbers are going up, the age of patients is trending down. Walsh said the “majority” of cases are in young people with 114 cases in the past week alone within the 20-year-old age range.
During contact tracing, many of those patients admitting to attending pool parties or similar events during the Memorial Day weekend, drinking at bars near UCF and going to restaurants where other cases have been identified.
Seminole County emergency manager Alan Harris previously told News 6 that bars near the university were a source of infection and on Wednesday, Walsh said they could be among several factors leading to the increase.
“Some of the bars have definitely had reports of increased cases, of what we call clusters of cases, and if you look at the heat map that the county provides at PrepareSeminole.org, you’ll see that the Oviedo area is what we consider a hot spot, if you will, you know,” Walsh said. “This is where we’re seeing a good many of the cases reported, and it could be due, I mean we could be hypothetical here, it could be due to the fact that we have more young people in this area. We’re continuing to investigate to see where the trends are, but that is potentially a likely source.”
Officials couldn’t identify the businesses that have closed due to COVID-19 cases, citing privacy concerns, but the owner of Knight’s Pub, located less than a mile from campus, confirmed that he closed his bar again for that reason.
While cases are near campus, Harris said the cases are not necessarily students.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday that the statewide trends show an increase in cases among those in their 20s and 30s, pointing out that those patients are less likely to fall seriously ill.
In Seminole County, Walsh said those younger patients are being identified because they’ve sought out care and not just because of an increase in testing, which the governor cited as the cause for the spike in cases across Florida.
“These young people have been symptomatic and they’ve gone to urgent care, doctors offices, hospitals to be tested. So, what we’re seeing here locally, it doesn’t seem to be related to our increased community testing,” Walsh said.
The governor also said farmworkers and clusters in assisted living facilities have contributed to Florida hitting a record high number of new daily cases, but Harris said that’s not the case in Seminole County.
“We’re just not seeing a lot of cases in the ALFs, nursing homes -- thank God, because if we saw these numbers for the young people in those facilities, we’d be having a different discussion,” Harris said.
In terms of stopping the spread, Harris and Walsh reminded residents that the threat of COVID-19 isn’t over and they need to remember to wear facial coverings, practice social distancing and keep their hands clean.
“We can reopen the community, we can rebound and be safe at the exact same time and that is our message,” Harris said.
News 6 spoke to UCF senior Ben Ribotsky, 22, who said he tested positive for COVID-19 nine days ago. He said he and his friends went out to several bars and nightclubs both in the UCF area and at downtown Orlando the very night they were allowed to reopen as part of Phase 2 back on June 5.
"As soon as the bars and restaurants started opening up, kids my age stuck inside were like 'You know what we are allowed to do this so let's go out and do this,'" he said.
He never developed symptoms but got tested after his roommate tested positive that Tuesday after Phase 2 reopening.
"I tested positive," Ribotsky said. "I'm glad I went ahead and got checked because honestly if I didn't get checked out I would have no idea I would have it."
Ribotsky said easily about 50 people in his social circle tested positive and many of them had no symptoms at all.
"Of those 50, I'd say 7 or 8 have symptoms," he said.
Ribotsky naming several of the bars he went to, including Knight’s Pub which voluntarily shut back down after reopening. The owner, Michael D’Esposito telling News 6 ‘it was the right decision’, though not saying anything about any possible cases there.
“Please write about spreading awareness and testing,” D’Esposito said. “That’s been our message to our patrons, keep getting tested to make the return to nightlife safe.”