Follow new restrictions To slow virus’ move here

Alex Dang, a medical student from the University of Florida College of Medicine, takes nasal swabs during COVID-19 screenings at The Villages Polo Club. UF Health has announced that evidence shows no significant community spreading within The Villages area.

Social distancing in The Villages appears to be paying off, new testing evidence suggests. The results of 2,280 people tested for COVID-19 at a drive-thru site in The Villages last week show no evidence of significant community spread, UF Health announced today — a finding that officials attribute to residents’ ongoing adherence to new health protocols. “We are continuing to closely monitor the situation,” said Dr. Michael Lauzardo, deputy director of the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute and an associate professor in the division of infectious diseases and global medicine at UF’s College of Medicine. “In keeping with recommendations from the governor, we would strongly encourage everyone to continue to practice social distancing, and, for persons 65 years of age and older, to remain at home to reduce the risk.” UF Health conducted the testing in partnership with The Villages Health over five days at The Villages Polo Club.

Out of the 630 people who reported feeling symptoms and were given Food and Drug Administration-approved clinical tests, only 20 came back positive in the first four days of testing.

Another approximately 1,400 people who did not report symptoms but thought they may have been infected were given tests through a UF Health research arm. Only two of those came back positive in all five days of testing, and both cases were travel-related to New York City.

Although the total number of positive results remains low, the number of positives increased slightly as the week progressed, suggesting that the infection is starting to move into the community. Experts say it’s more important than ever to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

“The best way to stop the virus’ spread in our community is to continue to socially distance and self-quarantine,” stressed Dr. Elliot Sussman, chairman of The Villages Health. “If we all do that, the entire community will be better off.”

The area’s medical system also will be better positioned to treat the patients most in need, said Dr. Jeff Lowenkron, chief medical director of The Villages Health.

“Since we know that testing supplies are scarce, and that personal protective equipment is scarce for health care workers, the most simple thing we can do is to reduce the demand for those who really need it,” he said.

Locally, hospitals remain at about 50% capacity with a high volume of ventilators for patients who might need that level of care, he said.

But unless a patient with the virus is experiencing difficulty breathing, they’re likely to be sent home to rest with lots fluids, good hand washing and social distancing, he said.

Of Florida’s 4,950 cases, only 633 have been hospitalized and 60 have died. The most simple way to keep the numbers from spiking, Lowenkron said, is for healthy people to continue practicing good hygiene and social distancing.

“We need to preserve those supplies for the sickest patients and health care workers who may be at significant risk caring for them,” he said.         

Meanwhile, researchers continue to study the virus for ways to stop its spread.

UF Health’s research study in The Villages is thought to be one of the largest of its kind in the nation.

“Research plays a crucial role in guiding policy and practice,” said Dr. David R. Nelson, senior vice president for health affairs at UF and president of UF Health. “The more we can learn through studies such as this one, the better we will be able to treat it and prevent its spread in the future.”

He added that the testing here “has been incredibly efficient and well-organized, and could certainly serve as a model for future testing of large populations.”    

The screening allowed hundreds of people daily to be tested while maintaining safe social distances. An electronic screening and appointment process eliminated the long waits in the Florida heat at other testing sites around the state.

“With the help of all of our volunteers, we were able to grow testing to over 500 patients a day in 3.5 hours, which was not only good for the individuals getting tested, but strengthens our ability to have a positive impact on the public health of our community,” said Carla VandeWeerd, Ph.D., director of Research for The Villages Health.

Drive-thru testing at the Polo Club will resume later this week if supplies become available, UF Health and The Villages Health officials have announced.

The schedule will be posted at once it is available.

“This has been a very worthwhile endeavor, and it will be an ongoing endeavor with an at-risk population that we’re really working hard to keep safe,” Lauzardo said.