Curative testing holidays: People line up for a COVID test by Curative at Islamorada’s Founders Park during the holidays. DAVID GROSS/Keys Weekly

Lines poured out the door of the Advanced Urgent Care facility in Key Largo on the morning of Jan. 4 as people waited to receive a COVID-19 rapid test. Further south at Founders Park, appointment slots were filling quickly as people were ready for their swab test. 

With a busy holiday season in the Keys and Florida comes another wave of COVID spread. A COVID-19 report by the Florida Health Department reported 951 new cases of COVID-19 in Monroe County from Dec. 24 to Dec. 30. Throughout Florida, 298,455 new cases were reported in the same time span, and that’s up from 128,186 between Dec. 17 and Dec. 24 and 29,514 in the days spanning from Dec. 10 to Dec. 17. 

“A real high number of people are coming back as positive cases,” said Bob Eadie, top health officer for Monroe County. “It’s not totally unsurprising. But the numbers are surprising in the sense we haven’t seen them that high before.

“Part of it is that everybody over the holidays wanted to be tested so they could travel. I think we’re probably still continuing with that sort of thing,” he continued. “People really get concerned when they read all the media accounts, so I think all that’s playing into it too.”

Those feeling ill should contact their doctor and get tested, Eadie said. 

Eadie said the latest variant spreading, Omicron, isn’t as virulent as others. That’s evidenced by relatively low hospital figures at local hospitals. As of Jan. 4, Lower Keys Medical Center had six COVID patients in house with one patient in the intensive care unit. Baptist Health South Florida was caring for five patients with COVID-19 at Fishermen’s Community Hospital and Mariners Hospital. Across the Baptist system, some 619 patients with COVID-19 were receiving care — a 350% increase from that of two weeks ago.

“We have all the resources we need at this time to care for our community,” said Gina Halley-Wright, spokeswoman for Baptist Health South Florida.

Students returned to the classroom on Jan. 4 following a holiday break. Data from the Monroe County School District’s dashboard shows 64 students were confirmed positive with COVID-19 during winter break, from Dec. 20 to Dec. 31. Twenty-seven teachers and staff tested positive over the break. 

School board chairman Andy Griffiths said during a Jan. 3 evening radio show that the district is following CDC quarantine guidelines, which now say to quarantine and isolate five days. New guidance by the CDC, which came just before the New Year, states that the change is motivated by “science demonstrating that the majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs early in the course of illness, generally in the 1-2 days prior to onset of symptoms and the 2-3 days after.”

“But in cases where an order from the governor conflicts with the CDC guidelines, we are obeying the governor,” Griffiths said during an interview on U.S. 1 Radio, adding that “The CDC has had some credibility issues recently.” 

In a Jan. 3 press conference in Broward County, Gov. Ron DeSantis told reporters that schools will remain open in Florida. He said no “crazy” mitigation is needed. 

“If you look at the data amassed throughout the pandemic, it’s found that you have worse outcomes by closing schools in terms of whatever community prevalence is. The schools aren’t driving this,” he said. “They need to be in school. Parents need to be assured they can send kids to school.” 

Eadie said the number of children seriously affected by COVID and Omicron remains low. 

“That’s not to minimize those who may have health issues and it could be more serious,” he said. “But it’s more like a cold for the vast majority of children.”

Recent COVID spread is hitting workplaces hard, including the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. As of Jan. 3, the office was short about 25 employees due to positive COVID tests. They include patrol deputies, corrections officers and administrative staff. 

 “That was as of last week, and the number is a constantly moving target,” sheriff’s spokesman Adam Linhardt told the Keys Weekly on Jan. 3. 

Capt. Don Hiller of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office in Marathon said it’s hitting them very hard. 

“The only saving grace is that all of our symptoms have been on the milder side and recovery has been very quick,” he said. “But it is spreading rapidly throughout our agency.”

In Monroe County’s two jails, 16 of the 525 current inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. Strict protective protocols had kept the jail population largely COVID-free until this past week of widespread community transmission that is affecting all agencies and industries. 

With COVID-19 cases on the rise, the Jan. 6 village council meeting at the Founders Park Community Center has been canceled. The two agenda items scheduled for the meeting have been moved to the Jan. 27 meeting agenda.

Despite rising cases, Monroe County remains in the upper echelon in the number of people vaccinated. With 59,472 residents, or 82% of the population inoculated, the Keys sits No. 2 in the state in percentage of people vaccinated. 

A little more than 300 people in Monroe County received a vaccine between Dec. 24 and Dec. 30. Supplies remain available at local pharmacies for those wishing to get inoculated. But vaccines for young kids ages 5-11 remain hard to obtain. 

A little over 1.6 million children ages 5 to 11 in the state have been vaccinated, per the Florida Health Department’s latest report. 

Monroe County Commissioner Holly Raschein said there’s been no clear answer as to why the Keys can’t get the vaccines. As a mom, Raschein said, she’s hopeful that the wrinkles will be ironed out and that kids in the Keys, and their parents, will have the option to be vaccinated should they choose so.  

“I understand the natural supply chain issue that comes along with a health emergency; however, our neighbors to the north in Miami-Dade County seemingly have a robust supply, as they should given their size. But our residents shouldn’t be required to travel there to have their children vaccinated,” she said. 

Eadie said vaccines for children are beginning to come online, but still limited. In Key West, Walgreens on North Roosevelt Boulevard is providing COVID vaccines to kids ages 5 to 11. Vaccines are also being provided by CHI in the Upper and Middle Keys. CHI’s Marathon Health Center provided a one-time vaccination event for children ages 5 to 11. 

Mandy Miles, Alex Rickert and Charlotte Twine contributed to this report. 

Jim McCarthy is one of the many Western New Yorkers who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 4-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. Jim is a sports fanatic who loves to watch football, hockey, mixed martial arts and golf. He also enjoys time with family and his new baby boy, Lucas, who arrived Oct. 4, 2022.