Fla. county first responders upset by DOH refusal to share COVID-19 addresses

Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood said the department told him the information was "too time consuming" to continue sharing


Casmira Harrison
The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.

VOLUSIA COUNTY, Fla. — Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood has been sharing near nightly reports of the number of addresses that the county is monitoring for coronavirus for about three months now — ever since the coronavirus pandemic started having an effect on the local area.

But that bit of public information-sharing ceased this week. And the reason behind the all-stop drew ire from Chitwood, who announced to his thousands of social media followers Tuesday night that he had to stop sharing the data because the Florida Department of Health in Volusia County had stopped providing it to his department.

Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood calls the health department's latest withholding of COVID-19 information
Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood calls the health department's latest withholding of COVID-19 information "just another failure in a long line of govt failures to confront this crisis in an effective way." (Photo/Nigel Cook, News-Journal)

"Sorry to inform you tonight that our covid-19 data updates for Volusia County are over," stated the sheriff in social media posts on Twitter and Facebook. "The Department of Health just told us that effective immediately, they're no longer providing us the addresses that are being monitored for covid-19."

The reason given to Chitwood? That the information was becoming "too time consuming" to share.

"With so much community spread, they say the effort is too time consuming, and all 1st responders should be wearing PPE in close contacts anyway," the posts stated.

Asked why the Health Department stopped releasing the list of watched addresses to the Volusia County Sheriff's Office, Florida Department of Health in Volusia County spokeswoman Holly Smith did not answer.

"Since this is a statewide directive that is not specific to Volusia County, our state office can answer this question," Smith stated via email. "Please contact them (ESF 14) directly."

"That's their fall back mantra," said Chitwood on Wednesday, referring to the local health department. "It's the state. It's the state. It's the state."

At least one county EMT thinks the sudden lack of information is a bad idea.

"As a first responder the covid monitoring note in the dispatch information was the difference between wearing a protective gown along with the n95 eye protections and face shields or just n95, eye protection and face shield," wrote Leslie Brasol in a social media post. Now Brasol, an emergency management technician who has been with the department since 2014, said she has to make a judgment call on every emergency and possibly risk contamination.

Chitwood believes the stoppage of information "is just another failure in a long line of govt failures to confront this crisis in an effective way."

On Wednesday, the state announced another 9,989 cases while Volusia County tacked another 119 cases onto the county list. There were three more Volusia County deaths revealed Wednesday, all in long-term care facilities. The county now has logged a total of 3,070 coronavirus cases and 62 deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the SARS CoV2 virus.

As of Wednesday, Volusia County hospital ICU units had 37 of 215 ICU beds available, leaving 17% capacity left for incoming patients this week.

The sheriff said in the beginning of the pandemic, his department would receive the information nightly from the Florida Department of Health in Volusia County between 6 and 8 p.m., after which his CAD specialists would upload the data into the CAD system and he would unveil the total numbers of addresses added and removed from the list soon after to the general public.

The sheriff's nightly numbers contained no addresses that could violate privacy concerns, but did give the public timely information on the level of community spread within the county — specifically because the numbers of monitored addresses not only rose, but also fell as addresses were no longer monitored.

By comparison, the daily Department of Health data regarding positive cases does not fall. That data keeps growing, making it difficult to see indications of ZIP codes seeing less community spread, as well as more.

But in recent weeks, said Chitwood, the Friday, Saturday and Sunday address release from the health department lagged.

"We would get a dump on Monday," said Chitwood.

This latest week, the Sheriff's Office posted 117 new locations and "cleared" three locations on Thursday last week, bringing the total flagged addresses to 1,405 that day.

The office received no date over the weekend and then on Monday night, saw the list rise by 308 locations, with one location "cleared."

Then, Tuesday brought the announcement that the info-sharing would cease.

The sheriff was informed about the change by an email from a communications department CAD specialist Tuesday night, just after 9 p.m.

"I was just informed that effective immediately that DOH will no longer be providing addresses to flag," wrote CAD Specialist Laura Jewell in an email to the sheriff and other office staff. "They advised that due to the amount of time it is consuming and the fact that there is such a large community spread that first responders should be utilizing PPE anytime they are in contact with the public."

In a phone interview Wednesday morning, Chitwood said Jewell has been the department's point of contact for the health department throughout the crisis.

Not everyone believes the sheriff should be sharing the number of addresses.

"I didn't see a real value in sharing the number (of addresses)," said Volusia County Chair Ed Kelley in a phone call Wednesday regarding Chitwood's dispensation of the numbers to the public. Kelley was Chitwood's most vocal opponent when the sheriff began sharing the numbers on social media.

But Kelley said he does believe the information has value for public safety officers.

"For first responders making calls, that was definitely a benefit and the way it should have been used," said Kelley. "I didn't think it was necessarily important to let the public know things that we didn't necessarily have access to as a council directly."

Others, however, feel the sheriff's frustration is fully justified in his response.

"I think the Department of Health has some 'splainin' to do," said former county councilwoman Pat Northey, adding she feels it is the health department's obligation to get information like that out to the public. "In today's technological age, that shouldn't be a big deal. A junior high schooler could probably write a program for it."

Northey said the decision just seems like yet another way for the state to withhold information.

"And the state's been doing a lot of that," Northey added.

Chitwood feels the lack of transparency from the state is pervasive, ongoing and detrimental.

"From the beginning, we have all been getting limited information or conflicting information from our local, state and federal governments," Chitwood said.

"I started posting numbers of locations flagged for covid in each Volusia city because I believe we all deserve access to info to make informed decisions," said the sheriff. "Not everyone agreed w/ me. ... It's clear now that our government is so overwhelmed by this crisis, that it's up to the people to solve it. I hope we are up to the task."

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©2020 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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