New COVID cases top 29,000 in Florida as hospitals, government offices, businesses cope with omicron

The 29,059 cases the CDC disclosed Tuesday is the most in one day since the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020.

Jane Musgrave
Palm Beach Post

Mask mandates are back, hospitals are restricting visitation, businesses are struggling to serve customers and at least one retailer has temporarily closed its doors as the omicron variant continues its march through Palm Beach County.

With demand for testing reaching near record levels, another 29,059 people in Florida tested positive for COVID-19, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday. That is the most infections reported in a single day since the pandemic began.

A worker at the Palm Beach Gardens Apple store cleans counters and electronics in March 2020 after the store was closed temporarily as the coronavirus pandemic took hold. The store has been closed again this week as the omicron variant spurs a sharp rise in cases.

While the federal agency didn’t report how many additional cases were reported in the county, it said the positivity rate over the weekend jumped to 21%. During the seven days ending Monday, 11,812 new cases were reported.

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Tax Collector Ann Gannon, who in April became the first and only elected official in the county to mandate vaccines for her 315 employees, reinstated mask mandates for her workers and anyone who visits any of her six locations.

“Current data is indicating a surge of COVID-19 cases and with the more contagious omicron variant spreading in our community, I have no choice but to once again require facial coverings for our staff and our clients who require our in-person services,” she said in a statement.

Seven of Palm Beach County's biggest hospitals limit visitation

Tenet Healthcare hospitals, Boca Raton Regional Hospital and Jupiter Medical Center curtailed visitation. 

"Because of the increase of COVID-19 in the community, (we) will stop allowing most visitors into our hospitals," said Tenet, which owns St. Mary's, Good Samaritan, Delray, West Boca and Palm Beach Gardens medical centers. "We are making these changes for the safety of our patients, physicians and staff.

The Boca hospital has imposed similar restrictions. Like Tenet, one support person will be allowed for women delivering babies and one family member or friend will be allowed to accompany patients in the emergency room if space is available.

Only one visitor will be allowed for most patients at the Jupiter hospital beginning Wednesday, it announced. At the beginning of the month, before the omicron variant exploded, the hospital had relaxed its restrictions so two visitors for most patients were allowed.

“We continue to monitor the rise in COVID-19 cases and will make adjustments as needed," said Georgi Morales Pipkin, a spokesperson for Baptist Health South, which owns the Boca Raton medical center.

While the number of people admitted for COVID-19 has increased in the last week, she said there are currently no plans to cancel elective surgeries.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported area hospitals have beds available in both their regular and intensive-care units.

Employers cope with staffing shortages as infections rise across county

So far, medical officials said the omicron strain of the coronavirus appears to cause less severe illness. One of the reasons is likely that 66.6% of those over the age of 5 in the county are vaccinated, health experts said.

Vaccinations, including booster shots, have prevented people from becoming seriously ill and dying, experts have said.

But the growing number of people who are being infected has caused ripple effects for employers.

The Apple store in The Gardens Mall is closed until Friday. While officials at the technology giant couldn’t be reached for comment, the location is one of more than a dozen it closed across the country as the variant sickened its workforce, according to its website.

"We regularly monitor conditions and we will adjust both our health measures and store services to support the well-being of customers and employees," the company said in a statement to the Reuters news service.

Bill Watson, one of the owners of the West Palm Beach-based Big Time Restaurant Group, said the latest twist in the pandemic has forced many of its workers to call in sick, creating staffing problems.

“We are seeing a dearth of employees at the moment,” said Watson, whose company owns 16 restaurants in Florida, including Elisabetta's, Rocco's Tacos and City Oyster in West Palm Beach.

Each day presents new challenges, as some workers come back to work and others are forced to remain at home, he said. 

“As employees get sick or test positive, other employees have to work harder,” he said. “We’re doing the best we can with the people who are there and are working extremely hard.”

Other employers said they, too, are struggling as workers fall ill.

Eddie Mady, a spokesman for BeeperMD, said one of the reasons it opened pop-up testing sites in suburban Boca Raton was because so many employees got sick that the company could no longer meet the demands of its core service: home testing.

Of its roughly 200 employees, about half tested positive for COVID-19, he said. The workers fell sick as demand for testing soared.

In addition to hiring scores of new workers, the company opened its new pop-up sites at the Boca Raton Synagogue and Chabad Central Boca Raton to offer alternatives to anxious people who are spending hours waiting to be swabbed at government-run testing sites.

After nearly two years, the length and breadth of the pandemic is staggering, Watson said. For months, as state and county officials struggled to contain the virus, restaurants were shuttered. Then, when they were allowed to reopen, staff was hard to find.

Now this.  

“It’s really astounding,” Watson said.

jmusgrave@pbpost.com