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Southwest Florida is a hotspot as COVID-19 numbers soar across Florida

Melanie Payne Frank Gluck
Fort Myers News-Press

Florida will be the epicenter of the next wave of COVID-19.

That’s the warning scientists and medical professionals are sending out. And it’s looking as if Southwest Florida, including Collier, Lee and especially Hendry counties are among the few counties responsible for that designation.

The number of positive coronavirus cases and, more significantly, hospitalizations continues to increase rapidly in the region. 

“We’re not shutting down, we are going to go forward, we are going to continue to protect the most vulnerable,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said this week, adding, “the negative effects” of shutting down again would be much worse than “any gains you’re getting.”

More:International medical relief group launching plan to fight COVID-19 in Immokalee

Florida’s senior U.S. senator, Marco Rubio, echoed that sentiment in a video tweet Friday.

“I think we have to take every step we can, OK: wear masks, socially distance when possible, avoid situations that are high-risk, test as many people as you can, try to get people that are sick before they get really sick and so forth,” he said. “What we cannot do is close everything down again. We’ve already destroyed hundreds of thousands of businesses and jobs.”

But some parts of corporate America are heeding the numbers. Apple announced Friday that it was closing 11 stores in four states, including Florida.

Its Naples store at Waterside shops was open between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Friday. The Coconut Mall store in Estero was open until 7 p.m. Both will be closed at least Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

DeSantis has attributed the exploding numbers to increased testing in nursing homes and farmworker communities. But hospital data and the increased percentage of positive tests belie that reasoning.

While rural cases have contributed to the case surge, they are not responsible for it.

In the past week, Miami has added 1,734 cases, Tampa 923, Orlando 977 and West Palm Beach 516, St. Petersburg 545 and Fort Myers 400, according to Thursday's Department of Health report. The more rural areas of the Lee and Collier Counties, Lehigh Acres and Immokalee, have added 200 and 175 cases, respectively.

The percentage of positive tests indicates spreading of the disease. In May, Lee’s rate was 4.92%, meaning fewer than 5-out-of-100 people tested were positive. Collier’s May rate was 8.37%. Currently, 8.97% of Lee’s tests and 12.89% of Collier's are positive for COVID-19.

In some areas of the state, officials are taking the threat seriously. In St. Petersburg, employees of any business open to the public will be required to wear masks. And on Wednesday, the Monroe County Board of Commissioners voted to make facial coverings mandatory. Wearing masks can significantly reduce the chances of COVID transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Collier County Commissioner William McDaniel, whose district includes the COVID hotspot of Immokalee, said that requiring masks would be unenforceable. 

“How do you enforce that? Am I gonna put people in jail for not wearing a mask? No,” McDaniel said. “I can educate populations on better sanitation practices, simple little habitual human instincts.”

Sam Huber, 39, of Cape Coral said he believes that Florida’s surge is due to all the people who came here because “we were lax from the start” in following social distancing and face covering guidelines.

More:Naples man celebrates 85th birthday, leaves hospital after COVID-19 recovery

Huber said he saw more New York plates than he ever had before during the height of the northeast’s outbreak. And as far as Southwest Florida, he had acquaintances who came from the east coast of Florida to golf because, he said, “we were never strict.” 

Huber said he wears a mask only if it's required or he feels there are too many people too close together.  But since he’s tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies, he’s not too worried. 

“I’m convinced it will be hard to get it twice,” he said.

Florida set a daily high record on Friday with the Department of Health reporting 3,822 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19. That is the highest daily total since the start of the pandemic and puts the state at 89,748 confirmed cases and 3,104 deaths.

Southwest Florida continues to break records when it comes to the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Lee Health, which operates about 95% of the county's acute-care hospital beds in Lee County, has had an average of 120 coronavirus patients on any given day so far this month. During the same period in May, it was 88, up from 63 a month earlier.

The hospital system treated its highest daily number of COVID patients, 141, on Wednesday and again on Friday. 

Larry Antonucci, president and CEO of the hospital system, speculated during a virtual town hall earlier this week that the rise in cases was due to people ignoring safety warnings.

“I think what we’re seeing now, certainly in Lee County with the increase in cases, is the result of the fact that we’re not wearing masks the way we should be. That is anecdotal on my part. When I go out,” he added, “I see maybe 30% of folks wearing masks. And I think it’s going to affect us in the long term.”

NCH Healthcare System, which operates Collier County's largest hospitals, has seen an almost identical rate of increase. So far this month, it's averaged 51 COVID-19 patients on any given day. It was 37 for the same period in May, and 23 in April. It had a record 58 cases on June 11.

The full extent of Collier County's hospitalizations for this novel coronavirus is not known. Physicians Regional Healthcare System, which operates two hospitals in Naples, refused to release its own figures, directing a reporter to the Florida Department of Health. 

More:Florida nearing its goal of testing all nursing home, assisted living residents and staff for COVID-19

The Department referred all calls to another state agency, the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration. It did not respond to a media request.

When COVID-19 first began to spread, the region’s hospitals quickly moved to cancel non-essential surgeries and sharply limit who could visit new mothers, the seriously ill and injured and the dying in their care.

Southwest Florida health care organizations have since resumed elective procedures and, as of this month, have begun to ease visitation restrictions.

Lee Health announced earlier this month that it would allow visitors to visit non-COVID patients as long as they wear masks. Visits for COVID patients are restricted to “compassionate care,” such as end-of-life situations.

NCH spokesman Shawn McConnell released a statement on June 11, the date of its highest number of patient cases, saying it would keep restrictions in place:

"We feel strongly that our visitation restriction policy, while difficult, is effective in curbing the transmission of the coronavirus, and we take this measure out of an abundance of caution to safeguard our patients' well-being as well as that of their families."

That policy has not changed, McConnell said Friday.

Physicians Regional resumed elective surgeries on May 4 and has since lifted visitation restrictions for inpatient units.

"We felt that it was time to ease our visitation restrictions because visitors are a crucial step in a patient's recovery and with the state easing restrictions we felt this is something we needed to do," said spokeswoman Brittney Thoman.

Staff writers John Kennedy and Dan DeLuca contributed to this report.