Ex­perts con­cerned de­spite low virus lev­els at The Vil­lages

Orlando Sentinel - - Front Page - By Naseem S. Miller

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.

Got tips? You can reach me at nmiller@or­lan­dosen­tinel.com; call, text, Sig­nal at 321-710-7947; on Twit­ter @NaseemMill­er and on Face­book.

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