Orange County leaders discuss rise in omicron cases, school absences

OCPS Superintendent also discussed school COVID-19 protocols

Jillian Kalier translates what is said by Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings at a coronavirus news conference in Orlando. (Erik Sandoval, Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Omicron is touching almost all of Orange County, Mayor Jerry Demings said at the latest COVID-19 news briefing Tuesday afternoon.

Demings announced the number of COVID-19 cases in Florida jumped 744% in the last two weeks, making it one of the states with the strongest surges.

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According to the Florida Department of Health, as of Tuesday, Orange County has 280,564 cases and a 14-day rolling positivity rate of 30.27%, meaning nearly one-third of the population have tested positive for COVID-19 — double the number that was reported last week.

“If you test positive... stay home, isolate. Stay away from the other people. Isolate away from your family,” Demings said.

He added that nearly 2,300 people total have died of COVID-19 within the county and around 74% of residents ages 5 and up have had at least one dose of the vaccine.

Alvina Chu, an epidemiologist with the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, said 20% of the new cases are coming from one group in particular.

“The new cases in the past two weeks continue to predominantly be in the age group of 25 to 34,” Chu said.

Due to the increase in COVID-19 positivity, three testing sites — Barnett Park, Econ Soccer Complex and South Orlando Youth Sports Complex — are currently operating within Orange County. Around 10,000 tests were distributed among the sites between Sunday and Monday.

Orange County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Barbara Jenkins also provided an update, which came one day after the district reinstated its mask mandate for adults. As for students, Jenkins said, “there is no requirement for students but face masks can add another layer of protection.”

”Critical to our decision and our deliberation yesterday was a severe increase in sick leave calls in from our school staff, not necessarily identifying as COVID-19 illness but teachers feeling the need to call in sick,” Jenkins said at the Tuesday news briefing.

While Tuesday marked the day 206,000 students returned to Orange County Public Schools after winter break, the hallways were more empty than usual.

According to Jenkins, 92 of the 650 school district bus drivers and 700 out of 14,000 instructional staff members were absent.

“We cannot, we are not allowed, to move students back to digital learning — at-home instruction, if you will — based on state restrictions,” Jenkins said. “We are not allowed to make that move.”

Jenkins also said, even with the rise in cases, the school district does not encourage parents to keep their students home, but it’s up to the discretion of the family.

“It’s a parent’s prerogative if they decide they want to keep their child home. For health and safety reasons we can certainly not prohibit it,” Jenkins said. “Parents would be responsible to reach out to their child’s teacher to gather information about missing assignments, just as they would for any other absence.”

Ed Torres, the director of Orange County’s Utilities Department, is monitoring the COVID-19 variants through the wastewater, with the “omicron variant being the prevalent one” in the samples they analyze.

Results from a sample taken Dec. 30 indicated “96 to 98% of the wastewater having omicron.” He said he expects an increase in concentrations following the holidays.

One bit of positive news from the news conference, the county’s Tourist Development Tax, or TDT, collections showed an increase in November.

Orange County Comptroller Phil Diamond said the $25,051,900 collected during the month of November represents the second-best November in the county’s history.

“In comparison to last year it was a very nice increase... of about 183%,” Diamond said. “Also, compared to last month, October, they went up about $3.6 million.”

He said while that is good news, the latest COVID-19 surge is turning away tourists.

“As the pandemic and as the COVID numbers increase, I can guarantee you that TDT numbers will decrease,” Diamond said.

About the Author:

Samantha started at WKMG-TV in September 2020. Before joining the News 6 team, Samantha was a political reporter for The Villages Daily Sun and has had freelance work featured in the Evansville Courier-Press and The Community Paper. When not writing, she enjoys travelling and performing improv comedy.