How quick action here kept coronavirus at bay

A COVID-19 testing site by UF Health in collaboration with The Villages at the Villages Polo Club was one of many steps taken to help keep the coronavirus at bay.

As The Villages joins the rest of Florida on Monday in a slow reopening, officials across the state and nation are lauding community leaders for what they got right.

“This community has really responded and done a lot to protect themselves,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said, noting special concern for vulnerable senior citizens. “There were articles written saying, ‘Oh, The Villages is going to crash and burn,’ and all this other stuff. But they have less than a 2 percent infection rate. That’s why you go to a place like The Villages.”

Once DeSantis declared a state of emergency March 2, public officials and private business owners coordinated a swift response that lagged in many other areas that became harder-hit.

New procedures to counter the threat were already in place at public safety agencies and both local UF Health hospitals by March 13 when by the World Health Organization called the coronavirus spread a global pandemic and President Donald Trump declared a national emergency.

By March 17, as spring break began for Sumter County amid an order from DeSantis to close schools, the county began offering free breakfast and lunch to all children under 18. Led by The Villages Charter School, the district rapidly moved into online learning once spring break ended — one of only four of Florida’s 67 counties in position to do so.

By the time the first Villages resident was diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 19, local restaurants had begun limiting capacity and offering more takeout service, activities at the town squares and other facilities had been halted and social distancing was being practiced community-wide.

And that weekend, residents here began worshipping through virtual and drive-in services while churches elsewhere remained packed.

“The big takeaway is that social distancing and isolation has been working at The Villages,” said Dr. Michael Lauzardo, deputy director of the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute. “It’s really encouraging. We are where we need to be. We’re protecting the community through policies that have been implemented across the state and region.”

Lauzardo and other UF Health officials partnered with The Villages Health and state health professionals to bring what DeSantis called “the most innovative testing site in the country,” to The Villages Polo Club on March 24.

At a time that testing sites were desperate for supplies and languishing to take root around the nation, the drive-thru initiative overcame complex logistics to bring the free service to about 4,000 area residents — double its goal.

The program tested both symptomatic and asymptomatic patients to help researchers understand how the virus spreads.

It was deemed so groundbreaking by the medical community that it was featured in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“Frankly, I don’t know of any other systematic study like this that’s been done of an entire community around the globe,” said Dr. Prathibha Varkey, a professor of medicine and health policy at Yale’s School of Public Health.

Unlike other testing sites that required five to seven days for results, most results locally were back within 72 hours to help public health officials prepare.

Testing continued for four weeks until the state’s curve began to flatten.

“The low rate of positive results suggests that the community commitment to following recommendations for social distancing and other protective actions helped prevent dire consequences,” researchers said.

DeSantis praised the testing effort from the White House, as the first governor invited to a joint press conference with President Donald Trump.

“We wanted to learn more about COVID-19 very early on, so the state partnered with the University of Florida to do both clinical testing and research testing in The Villages,” DeSantis said. “The result of that was pretty astounding.”

As thousands of Floridians died in community clusters around the state, Sumter County reported only 57 positive cases and three deaths by April 2 when DeSantis issued a 30-day stay-at-home order.

Today, Sumter County accounts for only 221 of Florida’s 35,463 cases and 14 of its 1,364 deaths.

“Responding to COVID-19 in The Villages required efficiency and urgency,” said Rep. Daniel Perez, R-Miami, a speaker-designate to the Florida House Representatives. “The Villages did just that. They were quick to initiate responsible social distancing, and because of that, the community stayed safer and less exposed than most.”

Rep. Brett Hage, R-Oxford, who represents The Villages as part of House District 33, agreed.

“I am so proud and grateful for all the constituents in District 33,” he said. “We have navigated our way slowly and methodically through this health crisis using common sense and common courtesy. We will remain steadfast and resilient as we begin to restart this community.”

To keep the economic engine idling, The Villages hired a consultant to help subcontractors navigate state and federal benefits. Commercial Property Management helped connect local businesses to such programs, too.

And the Villages hometown lender, Citizens First Bank, jumped to the forefront of the effort as soon as non-essential businesses were ordered to close on April 2. In less than two weeks, it secured $77 million in stimulus loans for 434 small businesses.

“From every aspect of the organization, from The Villages Public Safety Department, to The Villages Recreation and Parks Department, to District Customer Services — everyone excelled,” said District Manager Richard Baier. “I’m very, very pleased with our response. It is so gratifying for our staff to live and work in a community like this where the residents for the most part were not only very compliant, but also looked out in a very appropriate way for one another.”

Trump himself was impressed enough send encouragement to residents here, tweeting on April 20:

“Congratulations to all of my many friends at The Villages in Florida on having done so well, and with such great spirit, during these rather unusual times,” Trump stated. “So proud of everyone.”

Monday, DeSantis’ “Smart. Safe. Step-By-Step.” Plan to reopen Florida will enter its second of three phases, moving from a time of preparation into one of limited reopenings for many businesses and services around the state.

“I’ve said, I’d rather get it right than get it fast,” DeSantis said.

If trends continue, the next phase of more openings is expected in coming weeks. For instance, he met with owners of barbershops, hair salons and nail salons in Orlando on Saturday to discuss how to move forward with reopening their businesses.

“Slowly but surely, The Villages will get back to being the hidden gem of Florida it has always been,” Perez said. “We are all excited to start that process.”

Senior writer David R. Corder can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5241, or david.corder@thevillagesmedia.com.