Paradise faces pandemic

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In a matter of weeks, our world has fundamentally changed. It started with far-off warnings of a pandemic that seemed little more than aberration in another part of the world. 

Fast-forward to today and much of our external lives have been shut down.

Beaches are closed, most golf and tennis has been cancelled, schools are closed, churches are closed and just about every facet of human activity has either ceased or been reduced to a new world based on social distancing.

The threat of COVID-19, a virus lacking a cure and reducing medicine to managing symptoms, demonstrates a magnified threat to communities such as Longboat Key, where the population averages 70 years old.

“The Coronavirus has changed our operation on many levels,” said Longboat Key Fire Chief Paul Dezzi.

Until recently, a call to 911 simply dispatched emergency personnel and on Longboat Key a police officer would also respond to the call. That has all changed.

Dezzi explained that dispatch asks a series of questions and through this matrix, if they determine that a person fits a profile for Coronavirus, they are deemed a PUI, or Person Under Investigation.

This classification initiates an immediate change in response. One member of the EMS team will mask up with eye protection, respiratory protection and will approach the patient and perform triage to determine if the patient fits the Corona virus category.

If not, the call returns to normal procedure. If they do fit the profile, every aspect from contact of the patient to transport to the hospital will occur to minimize any exposure to fellow emergency personnel.

“One of our greatest fears is if a firefighter/paramedic is exposed to a patient or exposed outside of work that they could come to work here and infect everyone else and an entire shift of personnel would have to remain in isolation for 14 days,” said Dezzi.

Dezzi says they have a limited supply of protective equipment and more has been requested and ordered.

To add to the safety of the emergency workers, and to the safety of patients on Longboat Key, the Town has requested that all firefighter/paramedics suspend any outside work as well as volunteering at other fire agencies.

Many emergency personnel work in hospitals or volunteer or assist in healthcare services and that has now been suspended.

Dezzi is at the center of Longboat’s emergency response and spends hours in conference calls with area officials with the goal of fashioning policies that are complementary between counties and municipalities.

So what should residents and visitors do if they suspect they may have been exposed or feel sick? Dezzi says if you have the sniffles or flu, it is not something the town emergency personnel can treat. All they can do is transport the patient at that point to the emergency room, which is generally quite crowded.

“The best thing is to call your physician and tell them what is going on. Many doctors are implementing Telemed programs and if a doctor feels you need medicine, CVS and others will deliver,” said Dezzi.

Dezzi suggests that visitors might go to a walk-in clinic perhaps if their conditions are not too serious, because the emergency room represents an extremely long wait and exposure to numerous other patients.

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” says Dezzi. “There’s no vaccine, it is fast-spreading and the U.S. is about 15 days behind Italy when it comes to its epidemic.”

Shopping pandemic

Dezzi suggests that residents and visitors shop as they normally would shop and not reactively.

“There’s no food shortage, people are buying ridiculous amounts of paper towels, toilet paper and water. Many are seeing other people stocking up, and then react themselves and do the same thing, and we are seeing a shortage,” said Dezzi.

Series of shutdowns

Numerous Executive Orders have shut everything from restaurant dining to beaches, but options are quickly evolving. Numerous restaurants have immediately initiated curbside pickup service on Longboat Key and throughout Sarasota.

Area drive-thrus remain open, and all major grocery stores are open with reduced hours.

The City of Sarasota closed all of its parks including Bobby Jones Golf Club, Payne Park Tennis Center and the Lido Beach Pool through at least the end of March when City Staff will review the situation. The City has also canceled its commission meetings and board meetings. Longboat Key plans to hold its commission workshop on March 23, but suggests residents can watch through the livestream on the town website.

Last Friday was when all restaurants in the state of Florida were closed, and only takeout and delivery is allowed. The closing of restaurants was through an Executive Order by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Two days previously, Gov. DeSantis ordered all bars and nightclubs closed for 30 days.

Following the closing of restaurants and bars is the closing of area beaches. All of Sarasota County and Manatee County beaches are officially closed and barricades will be erected to prevent beach parking. Longboat Key beaches are also closed. Residents who live on the beach on Longboat Key can still walk the beach but are encouraged to follow the edicts of ‘Social Distancing.’

“We want the public to understand that we take this very seriously and they need to heed the messaging of social distancing and stay at home, especially if they are sick,” says Manatee Public Safety Director Jake Saur.

The outcome…

For Dezzi and emergency officials and for all of humanity right now, the end is not in sight. The hope is that through social distancing the spread of the virus and the impact on the health care service can be best managed. The scientific community is working on treatments and a vaccine.

Dezzi says that some say Longboat Key should be doing more to quarantine individuals and others say the town is doing too much.

“Some say we should be on lockdown and others say ‘Why close beach accesses?’” said Dezzi.

One thing Dezzi is clear about is Longboat Key represents one of the most vulnerable populations. He said it reminds him from an emergency response protocol standpoint to when he was working many years ago when HIV was not understood and was a factor in emergency responses.

“Although this is a difficult time, we are trying to keep everything positive in our 37-person department. We have a great group of workers and a tremendous community. We will get through this together,” said Dezzi.

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