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Physicians blame parents not practicing social distancing or wearing masks for a spike in COVID-19 cases among young people in Southwest Florida.

Data shows 329 people under the age of 18 in Collier County and 189 in Lee County have tested positive for the virus.

That's a 31.6% increase in Collier and 52.4% increase in Lee in less than two weeks since the state first released a separate report about children and teens. On June 14, Collier reported 250 cases, while Lee had 124.

Statewide, 4,809 people under 18 have tested positive and 131 have been hospitalized. The state data does not include the death of 17-year-old Carsyn Davis, a student at Cypress Lake High School in Fort Myers. She died Tuesday from the virus, according to family and friends. Only three people have died in the age range of 15-25, according to the state data.

And Southwest Florida's percent of positive results -- which compares the number of tests given with the number who are testing positive --  is higher than statewide, which is 12%. The rate is 29% in Collier and nearly 21% in Lee, data shows. 

Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 cases in Florida for all ages stood at 109,014 on Wednesday and the death toll of Florida residents at 3,281. A surge of more than 3,000 new cases daily has occurred for the last week, and spiked to more than 5,500 on Wednesday. 

People are going out more and loosening their guard, according to Stephanie Vick, administrator of the Collier health department.

“A large increase likely means more social activity within that age group without using precautionary measures," she said. "The best way to combat the spread of COVID-19 is to limit social activity, wear a mask in public spaces, stay at least 6 feet away from others, and be diligent about hand washing.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis has repeatedly rejected a statewide requirement for mask wearing and no local government agencies are making it mandatory. The state surgeon general has offered recommendations suggesting masks should be worn.

More: DeSantis rejects statewide mandatory masking policy

The governor earlier this week acknowledged an escalation in transmission of COVID-19 but said it is occurring among young people in their 20s and 30s who are less at risk for serious illness.

In Collier, the median age of infection Wednesday was 39 while it was 55 in late April. In Lee, the median age of infection now is 45, dropping from 54 in late April.

The governor also has pledged a crackdown on liquor licenses of bars and restaurants that don't follow social distancing guidelines.

According to census data, there are roughly 65,000 people under 18 in Collier and roughly 135,000 young people in Lee County.

As of Monday, 20 pediatric patients had been admitted to Golisano Children's Hospital in Fort Myers who are positive or suspected of being positive, which is up from 12 patients a week earlier, according to Dr. Stephanie Stovall, medical director of quality and pediatric infectious diseases.

Golisano serves patients 21 and younger in the five-county Southwest Florida area; Stovall did not have a breakdown of the hometowns of the admitted pediatric patients with the virus.

Rural counties are experiencing much higher rates of young people getting infected; for example both Glades and DeSoto counties are facing a positivity rate that exceeds 40%, according to state health department data.

More: Immokalee sees spike in COVID-19 cases; advocates say more help is needed

“We are seeing a significant increase in respiratory illnesses and presentation of COVID-19 in pediatric patients,” Stovall said. “I think it’s a reflection of what is happening in the adult world.”

If parents are going out and not wearing masks and social distancing, their kids are not going to do it either, Stovall said.

A 16-year-old honors student is more likely to adhere to wearing masks and social distancing if friends are doing it, she said.

“To tell it to a 7-year-old it is not going to work,” she said.

Golisano has treated several pediatric patients with multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a serious condition where parts of the body, such as the heart and kidneys, become inflamed, Stovall said.

Dr. Maria Isabel Rosas, a pediatric infectious disease physician with Kidz Medical Services in Collier, said nine pediatric patients with COVID-19 have been admitted to NCH North Naples Hospital since the end of March.

The admitted pediatric patients have ranged from six weeks old to 17, with most of them with mild cases, Rosas said. She did not have the current number but said infection among young people is increasing.

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

More: Healthcare Network opens $15M Nichols Community Health Center in Golden Gate

Rosas said Immokalee is a hot spot for infection among young people, where it tends to be household transmission from an adult. Families live in cramped housing in the farmworking community, which makes it hard to control spread, she said. 

“Even when they are discharged home it’s difficult to follow guidelines to self isolate,” Rosas said.

Healthcare Network, the dominant medical clinic in Immokalee, reported it has tested 197 young people in the farmworking community and the percent of positive results is 25%. That compares to a 14% rate in Naples where 233 tests have been given to people under age 18.

The finding is surprising in Immokalee “but it is something on your radar,” said pediatrician Dr. Jose Salazar.

Salaar was on a radio program in Immokalee Tuesday morning, which he has done often to help educate the community about social distancing, mask wearing and hand-washing.

“Little by little, I think we are getting there,” Salazar said.

The Healthcare Network is offering testing to all age groups from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday at its Nichols Community Health Center in Golden Gate, 12655 Collier Blvd.

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Summer programs are preparing

Summer camps and independent recreational programs in Collier have had six staff members test positive for the virus to date, Steve Carnell, director of the county's public services department, told Collier commissioners earlier this week.

The locations are Vineyards Community Park, North Collier Regional Park, Immokalee Sports Complex and Eagle Lakes Aquatics Facility. No campers have tested positive, he said. Staff who have tested have been removed. The Immokalee Sports Complex has been closed.

Public health departments in Collier and Lee counties are not conducting COVID-19 testing at summer camps locations, health officials said.

Summer programs run by the Lee County School District are all virtual with enrollment at 15,500 students in kindergarten through eighth grades, which is higher than normal, Lee district spokesman Rob Spicker said.

The Collier school district is starting its in-person summer program next month and enrollment figures were not readily available. But the student/faculty ratio will be lower and faculty will wear masks when in close proximity to the students, according to correspondence sent to parents.

The students will not be required to wear masks but it is strongly recommended, according to the letter.

A voluntary summer athletic workout program through the Collier district will have lower student ratios than in the past and it may be more stringent at Immokalee High School because of higher COVID-19 cases in the community in general, Chad Oliver, school district spokesman, said.

Many summer programs run by private organizations have reduced ratios of students to staff, enhanced sanitation and have sent strict guidance to parents.

The Heights Foundation with an early learning and summer school program at two locations in the Harlem Heights community of south Fort Myers, checks temperatures of the children several times a day because, said Deb Mathimas, director of education.

Both programs are doing social distancing, so there may be 10 in a class where it was 15 to 18 before, she said. Heights is not requiring the kids to wear masks.

“Some of them are,” she said. “It is up to the parents.”

The Boys & Girls Club in Lee was closed for two months and is opening its programs with more than a 50% reduction in enrollment, said CEO Denise Gergley. There will be a ratio of 9 students to one staff member; it used to be 15 students to one staff person.

There is no moving around between the groups, temperatures are checked often and sanitation measures have been boosted.

"We are doing hand washing every 45 minutes," she said. "We have definitely put a robust program in place."

Boys & Girls Club programs in East Naples and Immokalee also take temperatures of everyone coming in and there are now eight students in a classroom when it used to be 20, said Megan McCarthy, president and CEO.

No staff members can leave the building for lunch and bus service for the students isn't offered because it is challenging for social distancing, she said.

The children must wear masks, no different than staff, and that caused a few parents not to enroll, she said.

If a child shows symptoms, the center reserves the right to send them home and ask for a doctor’s note to come back, McCarthy said.

“We know that none of our kids and none of our staff have tested positive,” she said.

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