A 12 months later, Florida Keys continued combating the native information pandemic

For many, it seemed like a lifetime ago the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Florida Keys. Just a year later, life in the Florida Keys changed dramatically.

Companies have closed. Income has shrunk and people who have never needed financial support have not been able to get enough support. As of Friday, 47 locals have died and 240 residents have been hospitalized.

The pandemic was as much about politics as it was about public health and the economy. There has been litigation and argument over how local, state, and federal governments have put restrictions in place and who has received vaccinations so far, with the upscale Keys enclave of Ocean Reef at the center of the local, state, and national debate about the fairness of the way Vaccinations were distributed.

But Keys residents and nonprofit groups have come together to feed needy locals, and local governments have quickly got tens of millions of dollars in funding into the hands of residents. Local governments and emergency management executives have learned new ways of working.

With almost 20% of the population of the Keys, 15,056 residents, who have been vaccinated so far, the pandemic for the island chain is far from over. The sprint has turned into a marathon with no recognizable finish line in sight.

There are signs of hope. More than 200 teachers and school staff ages 50 and older are expected to receive Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccination on Saturday, March 13, said Becky Herrin, Monroe County spokeswoman for the school district. The state health department has so far offered the Keys schools 600 vaccinations, she added.

PANDEMIC REACHES THE KEYS

Around this time last year the bars had closed and the Keys had a handful of COVID-19 cases. Monroe County officials set up two checkpoints on US 1 in the last week of March, allowing only Keys residents and workers to enter the Keys.

The checkpoints sparked a lawsuit and a protest was organized by the owner of Historic Tours of America, Ed Swift.

The checkpoints fell on June 1st. While some have argued the economic consequences of the checkpoints, no one can argue the effectiveness of slowing the spread of the highly contagious virus. The keys had fewer than 200 cases while the checkpoints were in place. It took a little over a week to reach 200 cases after the checkpoints were removed.

The Keys reported their first COVID-19 death on April 2, a 55-year-old Key Wester named Keith White. White was very popular in the community and retired from Casa Marina Resort a few years ago after serving for 23 years.

Panic struck again when an outbreak was reported at the Plantation Key Nursing Center at the Crystal Health and Rehab Center in Tavernier, killing 13 seniors in March and April 2020. Seven of these deaths were labeled “Suspicious for COVID” by the Health Administration Agency -19 “in a May 19 report.

AHCA also criticized the facility for failing to report these deaths to AHCA, the Florida Department of Health, or the local medical examiners bureau.

COVID-19 put an uncomfortable end to the Florida Keys tourism season last year, and the disease lasted into summer and winter, with restrictions on how businesses operate, the number of people in the businesses, and the requirements Company wearing masks and social distancing exist.

A Key West couple served a month in prison for violating quarantine orders, arguably the harshest local sentence handed down during the pandemic.

When the Keys re-entered their busy tourism season last winter and Snowbirds returned, mask and social distancing restrictions remained in place. The debate over COVID-19 restrictions reached another focal point over New Year’s week when the City of Key West imposed a 10 p.m. curfew on that holiday weekend.

Local resident Andrew Day filed a lawsuit against Key West officials challenging the constitutionality of the curfew. Judge Lawrence King ruled the curfew was constitutional, but his order did little to prevent some residents and visitors from staying outside after the curfew.

Key West police arrested at least half a dozen people for violating the Key West curfew on New Year’s Eve, including restaurateur Joe Walsh. Walsh has been a vocal opponent of multiple COVID-19 restrictions in the city. Walsh and the others were charged with an offense for violating an emergency management policy.

However, those named can go with impunity as Governor Ron DeSantis earlier this month granted pardon of fines to anyone charged with violating local COVID restrictions. However, Monroe County Attorney Dennis Ward said he could continue to push for jail terms for those convicted of such violations.

Hope came in the last week of January when the COVID vaccine made its way to the Florida Keys. The College of the Florida Keys was instrumental in the success of the Florida Keys vaccination rollout as its facilities hosted large vaccination events and its nursing students administered hundreds of shots.

“I’m proud of the way the community has responded and the college has been immensely helpful,” said Shannon Weiner, the county’s emergency management director.

However, the introduction of vaccination in Florida was not without controversy.

Keys residents began to grumble and raise political preference concerns when residents of upscale Ocean Reef – a major political donor community for the Republican Party and Governor DeSantis – received 80% of the vaccinations to Monroe County in January. When this news went viral and was featured in the press nationwide, DeSantis went on the defensive and denied political favoritism.

“We had nothing to do with it,” DeSantis said at a press conference earlier this month. “The state was not involved.”

DeSantis claimed Baptist Health South Florida, which operates a medical facility on Ocean Reef, called about how many vaccinations that community had received.

“They thought it made sense to do more than 65. I think it was a wise decision to do so, ”said DeSantis.

Over the past two months, the average rate of new daily cases has decreased, and the new average has been around 20 cases per day for the past two weeks, according to Weiner.

As infection rates continue to decline and the number of Monroe County’s vaccinated residents slowly increases, calls for restrictions to be reduced and government offices reopened to the public are rising too.

Last month, the Monroe County Commission urged government officials to draw up plans to reopen public libraries and the county’s planning department for face-to-face visits. The libraries and planning department have been closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The library offers roadside services for books.

The county has practically operated many departments since the COVID pandemic, including the emergency management department. The pandemic has forced the county to train additional staff on emergency management and has allowed the department to hold more meetings and briefings virtually, which could result in fewer people remaining at risk in a hurricane.

“It has a significant impact on our system,” said Weiner. “It made it better.”

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