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Expect to continue social distancing for at least three to four weeks and maybe a few months, Dr. Joy Jackson, director of the Florida Department of Health in Polk County, told city commissioners on Thursday.
Jackson said that the number of COVID-19 cases will continue to grow, eventually reach a plateau and then start to fall. Social distancing measures need to remain in effect for at least as long after the plateau as before it, she told commissioners, who were meeting via teleconferece for a COVID-19 workshop.
As of noon Thursday, the Florida Department of Health had recorded 212 confirmed cases in Polk County and six deaths, including six infections in long-term care residences, she said.
Fifty-eight of those confirmed cases are in Lakeland, she said.
In answer to a question from Commissioner Philip Walker, Jackson said it is not the number that is important but the trend.
“I would wager there are at least 10 times that number of infections — people who have checked with their doctors and not been tested but are self-isolating,” she said.
While testing is gradually becoming more accessible, tests remain in short supply and are being limited to health care workers, first responders and to others with serious symptoms, she said.
Among the 3,372 tests conducted on residents of Polk County, 6 percent have been positive, Jackson said. “That tells us that there is COVID-19 community transmission in Polk County,” she said.
“Most people with COVIID-19 will not be able to be tested or need to be tested,” Jackson said. “Eighty percent have mild to moderate illness and can be taken care of at home and recover at home. ”
Jackson said that while she can understand individuals want to know their test status so they can inform family and friends and people they may have exposed, there simply are not enough tests at this time. The vast majority of people can home isolate, she said.
“We are under state order; we should all be staying home anyway,” she said.
When a person is sick with fever and a cough, it is time to contact a medical provider, who can ascertain whether there is a need to be seen or to be tested, she said. If the person gets a high fever, worse cough or chest pain – even if a normally health 35-year-old – the doctor needs to be contacted again, she said.
Jackson said that Lakeland Regional Health is still on the waiting list to receive Abbott’s new molecular point-of-care rapid test that gives results in five minutes to a half-hour. Earlier Thursday, another Polk County hospital she did not name received the rapid test equipment; however, the rapid test currently is being limited to the emergency department and in-patient use there to ensure patients are being properly isolated, she said.
Although hospitals and the Health Department are getting faster turn-around on the typical tests, it can still take 10 to 14 days to get results, she said.
Jackson also cautioned not to get up hopes about news reports on the development of point-of -care testing using antibodies. “After a person has symptoms, it can take up to five days to develop antibodies. So a person may have the disease and still test negative with a point-of- care antibody test,” she said.
Jackson emphasized that there is much research under way but no therapy has proven to be effective against the virus and the Food and Drug Administration has not approved any drug for treatment.
The most important thing a person can do to protect themselves and prevent transmission is to continue social isolation, she said.
The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending wearing a cloth mask when going out in public, she said. But she cautioned, “Masks do not give free rein to get too close or to perform activities that are unsafe. We still need to maintain social distance.”
Because cloth or paper masks tend to be annoying, a person may want to adjust it, she said, cautioning that it is easy to touch the eye while adjusting, thus transmitting the virus from whatever other surface has recently been touched.
“When you return home from a trip, the first thing you need to do is your wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water. If you are sick, stay home and protect other. Social distancing is the cornerstone for all of us to get through this,” Jackson said.
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