Dear Community Members:
I feel it is my duty to shed some light on how we can do better with the COVID-19 surge in our community. Although masking, distancing, and washing are extremely important in prevention, more is needed to mitigate the increased community spread. The methods by which we contain this spread are vital to our community. We are nine months into this pandemic and our community lacks adequate testing, contact tracing, and quarantine resources to reduce the spread. The surge was foreseeable. Local government is underprepared for the current surge of COVID-19 virus cases. We can and must do better. While the entire country is experiencing this surge, our local government and private sector can work together to mitigate the spread.
We need much more testing for the virus. Asymptomatic household members and close contacts of a positive person are not currently required to test. The total number of positive cases with some level of immunity to the virus is unknown because of the lack of testing. How many who go untested may be spreading the virus? How many have immunity and can safely navigate and help others? Who are currently reporting to work that are positive?
We will not know the answers to these questions without much more testing. We need to employ testing strategies known as “pooling” or “screening” to provide greater coverage of the workforce and community tested. In addition, we can identify resources to pay for rapid testing (currently $95 each) in order to get our residents back to work more quickly. The means for additional testing is now available, so let’s do it!
We need a more robust contact tracing program. The health department is a state agency. Currently, the health department has four contact tracer positions working daily. For more than one month now, our community in Key West and the Lower Keys have had dozens of daily new cases. The contact tracers have struggled to keep up with the contact tracing to identify, interview and advise close contacts. Close contacts in some cases are not reached or not reached on a timely basis and continue to potentially spread the virus. Also, currently the health department has no Spanish-speaking or Creole-speaking contact tracers – potentially negatively affecting important segments of our most vulnerable and underserved communities. We need more contact tracing!
We need policies to support COVID-19 positive patients to be able to safely isolate. Due to the local housing crisis, inadequate unemployment benefits and the overall economic challenges we face, some asymptomatic COVID-19 patients and many close contacts of positive cases are reluctant to isolate or simply do not have space to do so properly. Many are worried about losing their jobs, losing childcare, paying for rent, food and medicine. Close contacts and household members are not required to test for COVID-19 but have been required to isolate for 14 days (note: COVID-19 positive persons have been required to isolate for 10 days). The CDC is considering shortening the length of isolation required for asymptomatic close contacts. Many families are unable to support themselves while going without a paycheck for 14 days. No one agency is coordinating the effort to provide support to those required to isolate. The local government and private sector must work closer together to be sure that our workforce is supported adequately so they can safely isolate and help to reduce the spread.
Some of us called for a city task force to form (as early as April) to convene local experts to advise upon the adoption of best policies and practices to reduce and contain the spread of the virus. Thankfully, a local volunteer health & business advisory committee has just been convened this month (December) to guide the city and other local agencies. We have lots of catching up to do. We need policies to be vetted by our local experts now more than ever. I am optimistic that the health & business advisory committee will do just that. This private group includes the administration and medical directors from the health department, medical director from the hospital, the CEOs from the chamber of commerce, the lodging association and the restaurant and bar association, a contact tracer from the health department, nonprofits and the chief of police. Planning in advance is critical to meet the unmet needs in our community, especially with the expectations related to the vaccine coming available soon.
We can help those in our community most struggling during the pandemic. We should look through the lens of our working families who are worried about paying rent, for food and medicine. We are stronger as a community if our entire human family has the resources needed to effectively protect themselves and their families, so we are all protected. If we adequately address these unmet needs, then we truly can say that we “are all in this together” as one human family.
Samuel J. Kaufman
City of Key West