ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Orange County health leaders are trying to determine why COVID-19 data is sometimes delayed by as much as a month but right now, they don’t have an exact explanation for the lag.
Alvina Chu spoke on behalf of the Florida Department of Health in Orange County during a news conference Thursday and said that of the 27 deaths reported between Monday and now, a number of them in the “single digits” occurred in July. The rest of the patients died between August and September.
“So ‘I don’t exactly know’ is the answer (as to why death data is delayed), but we do try to work hard to confirm and investigate the deaths, and so we are working to figure out why,” Chu said.
She said the nature of reporting for the virus does tend to be delayed because it may take up to two weeks between the time someone is exposed and the time they experience symptoms.
“I’ve heard, I don’t know how many times, ‘I just thought it was allergies, you know, I had a stuffy nose, I always have a stuffy nose,’ ‘I can’t ever taste my food and so this didn’t seem weird to me’ but so, there’s the several days until you feel like maybe perhaps I should get a test,” Chu said.
The cycle of the virus also makes it difficult for contact tracers to pinpoint a patient’s location dating back two weeks to know exactly how many people might have been exposed.
Another difficulty, she said, is that people often don’t answer their phones or they hang up on contact tracers, perhaps in fear that they could be punished.
“Please, it helps us reduce the spread if you can talk to us and help us identify where you potentially might have been exposed and how we can help prevent the spread and places where you might have been. So we are we are not at DOH a regulatory agency necessarily or punitive and so we really just would like to understand more about the virus, how it’s spreading in our communities and ultimately how can we prevent the spread,” Chu said.
One source of spread she said the department is certain about is within multigenerational households and at gatherings without social distancing in place.
Chu said there was recently a surprise party attended by adults from 13 different households and one of the attendees was sick but didn’t realize they had COVID-19 and ended up spreading it to other attendees. From there, occupants from “pretty much” all 13 households, including children and others who weren’t at the party, ended up testing positive.
She said most superspreader events have a few things in common that residents need to avoid to keep themselves and others safe.
“So the size of the gathering matters, you know, smaller groups have the smaller potential for spread. If you can social distance, that reduces the spread. We are not at zero and so our goal is to reduce as much as possible, to minimize. Handwashing, good handwashing, you know, refraining from shared surfaces or utensils and also wearing a mask or facial covering if you’re going to be within close distance of another person helps prevent or helps reduce the respiratory spread,” Chu said.
While Florida may be in its third and final phase of its coronavirus reopening plan, the pandemic is far from over. Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings issued a word of caution Thursday to any resident or business owner who may be thinking about letting their guard down.
“Just because you can open at full capacity, doesn’t mean it is safe to do so or that your employees or patrons feel safe. They must be careful because we are not back to normal yet," Demings said. “So we are imploring our businesses to be careful as you make decisions regarding reopening.”
According to Chu, the relaxation of business restrictions could even lead to an increase in hospitalizations down the line.
“So I think the numbers are stable from what we had seen previously and the expectation is as long as we continue to have these large kinds of events where there might be more spread or persons whose behaviors do not help us prevent transmission or reduce transmission, I would expect some increase in hospitalizations, but we’re watching,” Chu said.
As of Thursday, Orange County has reported a total of 40,485 COVID-19 cases, 1,369 hospitalizations and 470 deaths since March.