WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — South Florida is about to get a surge of seasonal residents, also known as "snowbirds," and they may be causing issues for the critical task of contact tracing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Alina Alonso, the health director for Palm Beach County, told commissioners on Tuesday that many out-of-town visitors aren't cooperating with health officials who are trying to identify the source of COVID-19 infections.
"We're seeing a lot of resistance from people coming from out of town," Alonso said. "They don't want to share anything. They don't want to share who they've been in contact with. They don't want to share where they've been. They won't give us the names of the restaurants or clubs that they've been to. They feel they're protecting each other. They're not."
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Alonso is requesting an additional 170 contact tracers from the state, saying South Florida is now dealing with "three crises" related to the pandemic.
"We've got the spike, we've got the second wave upon us, and we also have the holiday seasons upon us, in addition to the tourism that we have here, the seasonal tourism that we have," Alonso said. "These people are gonna be coming from very high areas where the virus is very rapid. So we expect to have those people coming here and testing positive and spreading it."
The health director said the shortcome of contact tracing is that it's only effective when people cooperate with health officials and reveal information about where they've been and who they've been around.
"That whole effort disintegrates because you don't know who gave it to you," Alonso said. "So once you don't know who those contacts are, then you have the problem that you're just guessing."
According to the latest numbers from the Florida Department of Health, there are 69,855 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,739 coronavirus-related deaths in Palm Beach County.
The daily COVID-19 positivity rate in Palm Beach County on Dec. 5 was 6.46%. Health officials aim to keep that positivity rate below 5% because that allows for more effective contact tracing.
"Contact tracing is really, scientifically, only as good as, the lower your positivity is, the better your contact tracing becomes," Alonso said.
With the holidays upon us and more seasonal residents coming to South Florida, Alonso said it's more important than ever for people to continue wearing masks, practicing social distancing, washing and sanitizing your hands frequently, and getting a flu shot.
"It's inevitable that we're gonna have increasing numbers and higher positivity in the community," Alonso said.
Dr. Leslie Diaz, an infectious disease specialist in northern Palm Beach County, younger patients are now getting sicker, plus she's also treating snowbirds.
"After they get here and they settle in, within a week or two they start getting sick," Dr. Diaz said.
Both Alonso and Diaz said contact tracing is only as good as the information given to them, and people testing positive for COVID-19 need to share who they came in contact with.
"By doing that, knowledge is bliss. It stops the progression or propagation of the virus moving forward with other people," Dr. Diaz said.