A COVID-19 outbreak that killed two IT staffers in Manatee County government and hospitalized three others has forced the shutdown of the county’s administrative building in downtown Bradenton.
At 2:30 p.m., the county announced on Facebook that it was immediately shutting down the building to the public and sending employees home. Epidemiologists with the Florida Department of Health of Manatee County are now working on contact tracing.
“It’s been devastating to staff and it’s been difficult for the organization,” County Administrator Scott Hopes said. “The SARS virus is still in our community and the vaccine protects people.”
On Monday, one of four IT staffers who had been hospitalized with COVID-19 died, according to Hopes. A fifth IT staffer who went to the doctor on Wednesday, died at home Thursday from COVID-19.
One staffer in the department who worked closely with the other five and didn’t contract the coronavirus was vaccinated. All five who contracted the virus were known not to be vaccinated and had a sore throat as their initial primary complaint.
“These were not elderly employees,” Hopes said.
Both staffers who have died, a man and a woman, were in their 50’s. Those who were hospitalized were as young as their late 30’s, according to Hopes, causing him concern that we could be seeing one of the stronger variants in these cases.
The entire building was expected to be vacated by 5 p.m., including the State Attorney’s Office and the local office of state Rep. Will Robinson, R-Bradenton. State Attorney Ed Brodsky and Robinson were both notified of the outbreak.
Nick Azzara, the county’s information outreach specialist, estimated that as many as 700 people work in the county administration building every day.
The building will remain closed through the weekend for deep cleaning and sanitation, including fogging. Hopes said he expects regular business hours to resume at 8 a.m. Monday.
When the building reopens on Monday, COVID-19 safety measures, including a mask requirement, will be in place again.
“Effective immediately, we went back to the COVID-19 protocols until we know that this outbreak is behind us in the facility,” Hopes said.
As of Friday evening, the outbreak is believed to be contained to employees who work for the Information Technology Department, which is located on the seventh floor of the nine-story Manatee County Administration Building.
The closure and newly reinstated safety protocols didn’t come until Friday because that’s when county leaders learned of the second employee’s death. After hearing news of the first death, Hopes requested contract tracing data on Tuesday.
“We confirmed that (the first employee to die from COVID-19 this week) had not been in the building for a couple weeks since he tested positive,” Hopes said. “But finding out today that we had another death and I was not aware of the other cases and hospitalizations until I got the data today.”
There were 153 new coronavirus infections reported in Manatee County in the past week, according to the Florida Department of Health’s weekly COVID-19 report released Friday. There have been 196,248 people, or about 55% of residents 12 years old and older and are eligible, who have received at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Friday’s shutdown comes a little more than a month after the Board of County Commissioners voted 6-1 to remove COVID-19 safety regulations that had been in place for over a year. Commissioner Reggie Bellamy cast the dissenting vote during the May 11 debate.
Speaking during a virtual press conference on the outbreak situation, Hopes, who holds a degree in epidemiology, said the board’s decision to remove mandatory COVID-19 precautions was cause for concern.
“It wasn’t my decision, but I was quite concerned. These protocols work. These protocols prevent illness and they help to minimize death,” he said when asked whether he believed the county let the restrictions go too soon.
Citing universal vaccine availability in May, commissioners argued that it was past time to continue requiring masks, social distancing and other protective measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“Let’s get past the mandatory decisions,” Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said at the time. “We can’t continue to rule people’s lives this way.”
Their decision came three days before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its COVID-19 guidance to say the people who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear masks at all.
“People can make their own decision. All COVID regulations that were instituted and mandated for Manatee County government property should be removed immediately,” added Commissioner George Kruse.
On Friday, however, one commissioner who hadn’t been interested in the vaccine left Hopes’ office and immediately went to get vaccinated, according to Hopes.
County staff are now being encouraged to receive the vaccine. Next Friday, the county will host a vaccine event for staff members and their families. The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are expected to be offered.