Experts concerned despite low virus levels at The Villages
The Villages, a sprawling master-planned retirement community just 45 minutes northwest of Orlando, and one of the largest of its kind in the nation, so far seems to have been mostly spared from the onslaught of coronavirus.
Located mainly in Sumter County, this 55+ community with more than 128,000 residents has had about 80 cases of COVID-19 — 68 in Sumter County and nine in the small portion that’s in Lake County. The part that’s in Marion County has reported fewer than five cases, according the Florida Department of Health.
“Because people have been adherent to the guidelines that have been provided, the disease has not taken off in the way that we were concerned that it might and people are to be congratulated,” said Dr. Glenn Morris, director of UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute. “The thing to be emphasized is that the virus is definitely still present in the community. There is the potential for the infection to take off.”
The Villages makes up the majority of Sumter County’s 132,000 population, but so far it has accounted for five of the county’s 17 deaths, according to the medical examiners’ reports.
But the community and the county’s overall death rate, at about 7%, are still higher than the state average of 4%, which could be a sign of the county’s more vulnerable older population. In Florida, about 80% of all COVID-19 deaths have been among people 65 years and older.
Sumter County is unique in having a higher than average number of older adults. Nearly 57% of its population is 65 years and older, compared with the state average of 20%, according to the state health department data.
“That’s extraordinary. I mean, a hyper-aged society has just 30%,” said Dr. Kathy Black, a gerontologist and professor of aging studies and social work at the University of South Florida, Sarasota-Manatee.
Public health experts say a confluence of factors in this community have played a role in keeping the infection rates low.
Many Floridians, including residents of The Villages, began to hunker down weeks before Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home executive order, which took effect on April 3.
Even now, as phase 2 of Florida reopening began Friday, cell phone mobility data shows that
Sumter County has Florida’s fourth-highest percentage of residents staying at home.
The county is 90% white — compared with the state average of 77%. Data has shown minorities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
And nearly 97% of The Villages residents have high-school or higher education levels, compared with the state average of 88%. The community’s poverty level is 4.6%, compared with the state’s 13.6%. And the median housing value at The Villages is $269,000, compared to the state’s $197,000, according to the Census data.
Dr. Venkatesh Nagalapadi, a geriatrician in Orlando, said that 99% of his patients have been following social distancing guidelines.
“They wash their hands frequently. They change their masks every day. They don’t go out unless they absolutely have to,” he said.
The Villages also benefits from the residents’ widespread use of golf carts.
“I don’t want to overstate this, but [the residents] drive around in golf carts, not bunched in cars that are cooped up with windows closed and A/C blasting,” said Dr. Michael Lauzardo, an infectious disease specialist at UF Health. “This still has to be proven, but I think the outdoor nature of things helps, the risk aversion helps, the socioeconomic status helps.”
But experts worry that people may start letting down their guard, and regardless of finances, education or better access to doctors, they could give the virus the opportunity to spread and devastate retirement communities like The Villages.
“You’ve got a lot of people who are susceptible to serious illness, all clustered together. And so the nightmare scenario would be that all of a sudden people stopped following the social distancing guidelines and suddenly we started getting lots of cases,” said Morris. “Under those circumstances, we’re going to have a lot of very sick people, and it’s going to create major stresses on the medical facilities.”
Already, Orange County is showing signs of uptick in the number of new cases. Elsewhere, Texas, Arizona and Oregon have seen significant spikes in new coronavirus infections in the past week, according to Axios.
The state doesn’t provide specific testing and hospitalization data for The Villages.
But the overall numbers in Sumter County have so far been relatively steady.
The county has performed more than 4,400 COVID-19 tests, 5.8% of which have been positive, a slightly higher rate than the state average of 5.4%. But the county is also home to Sumter Correctional Institute, which has accounted for 44% of all COVID-19 cases, according to the health department.
Sumter County’s COVID-19 hospitalization rate is 17%, which is slightly less than the state average of 18%.
Meanwhile, after a nineday streak of reporting no new cases, the county reported seven cases between June 1 and June 3. There were no new cases on June 4.
“What I am hopeful is that people will continue to be careful, continue to maintain social-distancing, continue to follow guidelines, and under those circumstances, I am hopeful that we will continue to see very few cases in that area,” said Morris of UF.
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