Manatee County’s first recorded COVID-19 death came on St. Patrick’s Day. Three days later, health officials there made a public plea to the state for more test kits.
This fast-growing county of about 400,000 was ordered by the state to send some of its test kits to Orange and DeSoto counties, leaving just 200 for its only drive-through test site.
Another 150 kits finally arrived about April 5, but the only instructions appeared to be Mandarin. It took the Florida Department of Health another two weeks to confirm they were unusable.
Now, the county lags well behind the state in testing, even as the number of COVID-19 deaths there have spiked.
Manatee has recorded 35 deaths from the coronavirus, the fourth most in the state and far out of proportion for a county that ranks only 15th in population. By comparison, Hillsborough has recorded only 23 deaths. It has roughly one million more people than its neighbor to the south.
But even as fatalities and positive cases continue to rise in Manatee, its Republican-controlled Board of County Commissioners has responded to increasing pressure from the public to loosen emergency orders on social distancing and staying at home.
Commissioners recently reopened boat ramps. And on Tuesday — even as the number of positive cases jumped by 70 percent in a week — the board voted 4-3 to repeal a countywide curfew.
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Public Safety Director Jake Saur said he would have preferred that the 11 p.m. to 5 a.m restriction stay in place. At one point, 50 of the county’s paramedics and emergency medical technicians were quarantined or restricted because of potential exposure to the virus. The curfew was enacted to try to curb private parties and helped to reduce road accidents by 70 percent, Saur said.
“It is a double-edged sword,” he said. “The public, for whatever reason, didn’t like it or want it, and you have to take that into account.”
Officials have no clear answer for why the county’s death rate is so high. It hasn’t been helped by a low volume of testing. Just 2,744 tests have been conducted, roughly equal to 0.5 percent of Manatee residents, compared to the state average of 1 percent.
Jason Mahon, communications director for the state’s Division of Emergency Management, said the state is trying to fulfill counties’ requests for resources “as much as possible.”
Some collection kits for Manatee had to be reallocated elsewhere, he said, but the county received 300 test kits on Wednesday to replace them.
Mahon did not directly address a question about whether Manatee received kits with Chinese-only instructions. He did say Manatee County would get additional collection kits “in the coming days.”
More than a quarter of Manatee County’s known cases of the coronavirus have been among residents and staff of long-term care facilities. Those facilities have accounted for 14 of the county’s 35 reported COVID-19 deaths. Eight nursing homes or assisted-living facilities in the county have reported cases so far.
Dr. Jennifer Bencie, health officer of the Florida Department of Health in Manatee County, told commissioners Tuesday there is a “skew” in the county’s numbers because two large nursing homes decided to test all of their residents and staff a few weeks ago.
Those tests revealed that the virus was widespread, with 66 residents and 37 staffers at those facilities testing positive. Two of the facilities are owned by the same company and have a combined 328-bed capacity, Bencie said. She did not name the facilities.
“We’re very glad that they did that to get a handle on who was positive and what was happening in those facilities,” Bencie said.
One problem that emerged was that staff members split time in more than one nursing home, as they were owned by the same company. Those facilities have since reported positive cases of the coronavirus.
She said that an “involuntary order” had to be filed against one staff member “who knowingly went to another facility, and persons became positive."
The Times reached out to all eight Manatee County facilities listed by the state as having had positive cases. Some declined to give information on how many cases or deaths they had experienced.
Numbers provided by two facilities did not match the total number of nursing home deaths provided by Bencie.
The Braden River Rehabilitation Center in Bradenton told the Times that 11 of its residents have died from the coronavirus, according to a statement provided by Susan Kaar, vice president of compliance and quality management at Southern Healthcare, which runs the center.
The 208-bed facility has 27 residents who have tested positive and another 10 who are hospitalized. It said 26 staff members have tested positive.
And another 12 patients died from the virus at the Riviera Palms Nursing & Rehab Center in Palmetto, according to a statement provided by Kaar. Nineteen residents and 28 staffers there have also tested positive.
“Our professional staff are doing heroic work through this crisis," the statement said, "and we are adhering to recommended protocols and guidelines from local, state, and federal public health agencies and medical experts.”
Commissioners who voted to repeal the curfew also voted to allocate $100,000 to purchase their own testing kits and provide more personal protection equipment.
Longtime Commissioner Carol Whitmore has received a number of angry emails from residents about the county’s response to the pandemic.
One said: “You are a disgrace to our County. My mother knows you very well. If it was legal to slap the s*** out of somebody, I would definitely slap the s*** out of you.”
Whitmore, one of six Republicans on the seven-member commission, was one of three who voted against the repeal of the curfew.
“We have 60 patients in three hospitals right now — it’s a lot," she said. "People are more upset about the curfew than what is going on.”
Times reporter Caitlin Johnston contributed to this report.
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