Locally, life has started to regain some semblance of normalcy as restaurants, beaches, parks and gyms start to reopen, and nationally the number of new COVID-19 positives seems to be on a downward trend.

As Florida eases into a phased reopening plan, health officials are urging people not to assume the battle against COVID-19 is already won.


Locally, life has started to regain some semblance of normalcy as restaurants, beaches, parks and gyms start to reopen, and nationally the number of new COVID-19 positives seems to be on a downward trend.


Still, new coronavirus cases are confirmed daily — including nine Wednesday in Escambia County — and health officials urge continued vigilance.


Dr. Michelle Grier-Hall, director of pediatrics and clinical lead for the Incident Management Team at Community Health Northwest Florida, said an area of great concern is that people who aren't showing symptoms of COVID-19 could still be spreading the illness to vulnerable segments of the population.


"We do have to begin to open up things, and as things are opening up, our fears are that our citizens aren't taking the appropriate precautions," Grier-Hall said. "They think it's gone, and it's not gone. If anything, it's now out there but with more asymptomatic (carriers)."


She said data has borne out that about 30% of the people who test positive for COVID-19 show no symptoms of the illness.


Grier-Hall said people who are symptomatic of COVID-19 or who are in close contact with someone who has COVID-19 should be tested. But she also recommended testing for people who work in a field where they have lots of contact with other people, and who live in a home with an elderly or immuno-compromised person who could be put at risk.


"If there's just a concern that you live with someone who could be very vulnerable because of their health conditions, and you're worried, 'I could be exposed because I work here,' (then say) 'Let me go get checked to make sure I'm not going to take it home to my grandmother,'" Hall-Grier recommended.


Community Health Northwest Florida has been conducting walk-up testing in under-served communities throughout the area. She said the participation rates had been good and held steady because the testing sites were designed so that many folks could walk out there from doors and get tested.


The Department of Health has set a goal of testing 2% of the state's population each month to catch spikes in COVID-19 transmission. The health department has been more lenient in testing folks without pre-screening requirements and appointments, allowing people to drive up for testing with minimal hassle.


Last week, Sandra Park-O’Hara, administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Santa Rosa County, gave an update to Santa Rosa County Commissioners and said that demand for COVID-19 testing is down, particularly among people who are asymptomatic. Her department has offered to let Santa Rosa County business owners have their employees tested, and encouraged them to schedule testing days at 850-564-2307.


The department has offered testing at 12 drive-thru sites around the county since April 30 and tested over 1,500 individuals. Currently, about 4.15% of the population has been tested.


Local hospitals have been providing testing diligently for months.


Baptist Health Care said it was averaging about 38 tests per day, a modest decline since April. Most of the drop-off is in outpatient testing.


Ascension Sacred Heart reports it has tested an average of about 100 people per day at its Pensacola site. The health care organization was the first in the community to offer COVID-19 testing, and since March 16, it has tested more than 7,000 people in the community and another 2,000 at local nursing homes.


"We believe that testing and social distancing are both essential to limit the spread of the coronavirus in our community," a statement from Sacred Heart said. "Testing serves to identify the presence of the virus in our area, and helps to identify and then isolate those who test positive to prevent further transmission."


According to the hospital, they are running a 4.8% positive rate for tests, with some 420 positive patients. Those patients receive follow-up care at Ascension Sacred Heart's drive-thru respiratory clinic to reduce the workload on local hospitals.


Sacred said its primary focus is testing patients who have symptoms of COVID-19, currently listed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as fever, cough, shortness of breath, chills, muscle pain, new loss of taste or smell, vomiting, diarrhea and/or sore throat.


"We're finding that about 80% of those who call our screening center meet the criteria for testing," according to the statement from Sacred Heart.


Hall-Grier urged people to continue to be cautious and conscientious about their health as the fall and flu seasons approach.


"I just want to encourage as many people as possible to get a flu shot in the fall when it becomes available and to try to practice social distancing, wear face masks and use good hand hygiene," she said.


"What the fall looks like is going to depend on what we do now. So I'm just hoping that everyone takes heed to the measures that CDC has already put out there and taking those precautions, because the virus is definitely not done. It's still out there, we just don't see it."


Kevin Robinson can be reached at krobinson4@pnj.com or 850-435-8527.