(SS) Palm Beach County registered its biggest single-day jump in coronavirus cases Wednesday, more than three weeks after starting to reopen.
The county posted 258 new cases, topping a previous high last Thursday. But two county commissioners said they had information that the spike may be a statistical fluke resulting from the decision by one private testing company to report several days’ worth of test results on a single day.
When Palm Beach County started to allow people back into restaurants, barbershops and malls on May 11, there were concerns the county was moving too fast.
The number of new COVID-19 cases in Palm Beach County has also been trending up, state data shows. Photo via Sun Sentinel website.
It may be too soon to tell whether this is true, whether the one-day increase represents a random event or a resurgence of the disease. The average number of cases has been rising, however, whatever the cause of the one-day spike.
County Commissioner Gregg Weiss said the spike “concerns me,” but he said there were reasons that it may not be as significant as it might appear. A private testing lab recently dumped several days worth of results in the county, which could itself account for the increase, he said. Commissioner Mack Bernard said he received the same information.
They said they were told about the results dump by Dr. Alina Alonso, director of the Florida Department of Heath’s Palm Beach County office. That office did not respond to a request for comment.
At Tuesday’s meeting of the County Commission, Alonso reported that hospitalization rates for the disease had declined but that the average number of cases reported per day was climbing.
“They’re going in the wrong direction,” she said.
It's also just over three weeks into the reopening, with a disease that can take two weeks to present symptoms.
“I think it’s too soon to tell, at least countywide,” said Commissioner Melissa McKinlay. But she said she was concerned about a local increase in cases in the communities along Lake Okeechobee. In these areas, she said, many people can’t afford to skip work and because of the nature of their jobs, which are often agricultural, don’t have the option of working from home.
"They are suffering because they are continuing to work," she said Tuesday, at a County Commission meeting, where she called on the state to provide aid to help isolate safely. "They cannot stay home because if they don't go to work, their families don't eat, their rent doesn't get paid. They get fired."
Aileen Marty, professor of infectious diseases at Florida International University, said one-day dumps of test results aren’t uncommon. But she said there are reasons to think an increase in cases might be happening.
“There are a lot more cases, and there’s no question Florida’s still at risk,” she said. "We have opened up the economy a little bit, and I’ve seen people not necessarily doing what they should, so there could be an increase.”
Other indicators, however, are less clear, she said. Looking at the county’s numbers for emergency room visits and test results, she said, “I don’t see a real trend here.”
These numbers are being closely watched as likely leading-edge clues to the course of the disease.
The Palm Beach County Commission voted May 5 to ask Gov. Ron DeSantis to allow the county to hold a phase 1 reopening, which meant restaurants at 25% capacity, hair and nail salons and stores. At the time, the county still had not reached federal benchmarks for reopening, with no decline in new infections or the percentage of positive tests over the previous two weeks.
But the governor agreed, announcing his decision at a news conference in West Palm Beach. The reopening of restaurant dining rooms, salons and stores in Palm Beach County started May 11, a week before Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Beaches followed a week later.
The number of people tested has increased since April, but has been moving up and down since mid-May. But there has been an increase in the percentage of tests coming back positive, which rose from about 4% three weeks ago to nearly 10% in the past day or two.
The governor announced Wednesday that most of the state could progress to phase 2 reopening, allowing bar, gyms, bowling alleys and other businesses to reopen. But he excluded Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, which account for the largest number of cases in the state.