Leon County hosts meeting on COVID response, urges residents to get tested

Published: Jan. 5, 2022 at 12:00 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 5, 2022 at 12:09 PM EST
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Leon County Commission Chair Bill Proctor held a virtual meeting Tuesday morning to discuss the community’s response to the Omicron variant. The call lasted about an hour and a half.

The meeting included law enforcement, healthcare leaders, and university officials.

There were representatives from LCSO, TMH, CRMC, Bond Community Health Center, Neighborhood Medical Center, FAMU, FSU, TCC, and FDOH. FL House Rep Allison Tant and Tallahassee Mayor John Dailey were also on the call.

County and healthcare leaders push the importance of testing

During the call, County staff, including Assistant to the County Administrator Matt Cavell and Director of Emergency Operations Kevin Peters, emphasized the importance of testing.

“We cannot overemphasize the importance of testing in this period of the pandemic to identify infections early,” Cavell said.

Shington Lamy, the Director of the Office of Community Services and Human Partnerships spoke about the County’s homelessness outreach.

Lamy said the Big Bend Continuum of Care, FDOH and other homeless providers are now holding weekly meetings again with the County. The group is discussing the resources available, and what’s needed.

“We’re also identifying options to identify the need for rapid tests at the shelters,” Lamy said. “We’re working into looking at ways to isolate homeless individuals and families that test positive for COVID-19 in non-congregate settings.”

Lamy said the County delivered 12,000 face masks to the Kearney Center this past weekend.

FDOH’s Claudia Blackburn also gave leaders an update. She said the state is working on opening another site with “considerable capacity” within the next week.

Dr. Temple Robinson, the CEO of Bond Community Health Center, told leaders her biggest concern is the number of people sitting at home and waiting to get tested.

“They are exposing vulnerable people and keeping us on this vicious cycle of workforce strain. If you have staff members that are out with COVID or sick, you can’t handle your business or keep your business running,” she said.

Robinson said she is concerned about the volume of cases, urging people to “test, isolate, and vaccinate.”

“Omicron — it will make its mark,” Robinson said.

TMH CEO Mark O’Bryant and Dr. Dean Watson also provided an update.

They said TMH is seeing volume in emergency rooms, with people going to the hospital to be tested. The hospital has urged residents to get tested elsewhere in the past few weeks.

Dr. Watson said of the 35 patients with COVID at TMH Tuesday morning, two-thirds are unvaccinated.

“That’s just unfortunate,” Watson said.

Watson said TMH is not seeing school-aged children hospitalized with COVID “yet,” but he added that they have seen some children under 5.

As the County prepares to stand up more testing sites, FAMU also has increased its resources.

According to Tanya Tatum, the Director of Student Health Services at FAMU, FAMU’s testing site saw more than 3,800 individuals on Monday.

“We anticipate to continue to see an increase. We will probably add additional staff; I think there are about four more staff that are coming on this week, and we added 10 staff last week. So we are continuing to try to accommodate as much as possible,” Tatum said.

Local governments’ response is limited legally

County Attorney Chastity O’Steen told the group that legally, quite a bit has changed since the start of the pandemic.

O’Steen said in recent sessions, the Florida Legislature has created a “framework” that changes the authority of the County to act in certain circumstances.

Under recent law, the County would now have to meet a “high bar” if it were to impose a mask requirement, and the burden would be on the County to defend it in court.

The most recent session also led to changes in the County’s ability to enact emergency orders; they have to be limited in their duration, applicability, and scope.

“We cannot require persons to provide any documentation certifying their COVID vaccination status or post-infection recovery as a condition to gain access or entry upon services from the County,” O’Steen explained.

Leon County implemented a vaccine mandate over the summer, with a deadline of Oct. 1. Fourteen employees were terminated for not complying, and the state fined the County about $3.5 million.

The County and the state came to a settlement on the issue in mid-December; under the terms, Leon County did not have to pay any of the fine.

The vaccine mandate no longer exists because of another state law passed in November’s special session; the County rescinded its mandate when that law was passed.

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