On a day when Palm Beach County’s recorded coronavirus cases surpassed 50,000 to reach 50,316, the pandemic’s staggering effects could be glimpsed in one food pantry’s distribution line Saturday.
“They just try to hold on, so they don’t have to ask for free food. They’ve done their best to try to find work, but they’ve had to relent,” said Dan Shorter, founder and volunteer chief executive of Feed the Hungry Pantry, which runs the grocery distribution outside the United Methodist Church in West Palm Beach. “The virus has that much of a hold in our community.”
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The 328 new cases reported in the county Saturday is the fourth time in five days that new cases have topped 200, a spike not seen since Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered the full reopening of businesses on Sept. 25.
Statewide cases soared by 4,471 to 776,251. That raises new cases in the past week to 23,770, the most since early September.
The numbers are even more staggering when you consider the ripples they set off. An eyewitness to what he calls “the hell of this virus,” Shorter said the pantry has seen a dramatic rise in the number of families it serves each month since the start of the pandemic.
“We’ve never seen this many people unemployed. Most of the people we’re feeding, up until March, never thought they would be in a food line. They were living check to check. But you miss a couple of checks and what do you do?” he said. “The new families we’ve seen since March have email addresses and computers. They’re not the historically poor.”
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Feed the Hungry Pantry went from serving 3,000 families per month to serving 10,000 families per month, Shorter said. And because the charity has been seeing larger households, the amount of provisions granted per family has increased as well — from 120 pounds per family to 150 pounds per family.
“We’re seeing more first-time requests than ever before,” said Shorter, whose food distribution efforts rely on his charity’s public and private-sector partnerships. “Some people have held on for as long as they could. They’ve held onto their savings and supplies, and now they can’t do it any longer. Some got their jobs back only to be laid off again.”
The pandemic numbers do not simply tell the stories of individuals affected physically by a virus — they are indicators of COVID’s domino effect, said one social service strategist working with hard-hit families.
“It’s impacting every part of people’s lives. That’s what we’re seeing,” said Jaime-Lee Bradshaw, chief strategic initiatives officer at Community Partners of South Florida in Riviera Beach. “What we’re seeing is not just that they’re getting sick — they’re getting sick and losing their jobs. They’re getting sick and losing their homes.”
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The impact of the pandemic is even greater in communities where access to healthcare and technology is limited, she said.
“We are seeing families that were already on the brink and now have no income. We’re seeing people who are six months behind on their rent, just praying they can access the funds to catch up. We’re seeing children that are lagging because they don’t have adequate access to technology,” Bradshaw said.
She pointed to the case of one Belle Glade family served by her agency. There are 14 children in the home and one computer provided by the school district.
“Tell me what one Chromebook is going to do for that family,” she said.
A broader approach is required to prevent further damage to communities, Bradshaw said.
“We’ll continue to see as these numbers plummet and skyrocket and those families are going to experience that up and down,” she said. “How do we stabilize families? It doesn’t come from serving silos, it comes from serving systems.”
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Demand jumps for mental health services
In Palm Beach County, the Florida Department of Health reported three new deaths Saturday, increasing the toll to 1,585.
Death numbers, which typically lag a rise in new cases by weeks, remained at a relatively low level Saturday, with the state reporting 76 new deaths to raise its total to 16,620 since the deadly respiratory illness began sweeping the state in March.
But the collateral damage of the pandemic has led to other kinds of health issues.
From last year to this pandemic year, visits to therapists and psychiatrists have doubled at Caridad Center, a suburban Boynton Beach social service agency that operates the largest free clinic in Florida, one frontline manager said.
“The demand is very high. People, even teenagers, are asking for help. They feel so depressed and anxious,” said Brenda Lopez, the center’s social services and behavioral health manager.
The clinic’s psychiatrists and therapists have been providing tele-health services to Caridad patients, she said.
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“The problem is not just the people who are positive, but the whole situation,” said Lopez, who noted the demand for food is particularly high. “Many of our families have lost their jobs in restaurants, in housekeeping, landscaping and construction. It’s very difficult for them to pay rent and buy food for their families.”
Feed the Hungry Pantry’s volunteer CEO predicts the situation can worsen if people continue to lose jobs or are unable to access rent or mortgage money.
“There’s a reckoning coming. If you don’t have work, you may lose your home. We’re already seeing a whole lot of that,” Shorter said.
He takes silver linings where he can get them.
On Saturday, a 71-year-old veteran at the food-distribution line approached him to offer thanks.
“He said, ‘You’ve changed my life,'” Shorter said. “‘I wasn’t eating every day, or just eating crackers and water. But with the food you give me, I can eat again.'”
Long-term care deaths
The state’s daily positivity rate dipped to 3.68% on Saturday after three days above 5% earlier in the week. Health officials say it is critical to maintain a rate below 5 percent to contain the spread of the disease.
The county’s rate dropped to 2.67%, also after rising above 5% this week.
Over the past three weeks, several long-term care facilities in Palm Beach County reported jumps in the number of deaths to the Department of Health. Artis Senior Living of Boca Raton, which is north of Yamato Road along U.S. 1, had the most with seven deaths, lifting its total to nine.
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Manorcare Health Services West Palm Beach, which is near Bear Lakes Country Club, had six deaths to rise to 11 and Wood Lake Health and Rehabilitation Center near Forest Hill Boulevard at Jog Road had six deaths over the past three weeks to rise to seven.
Darcy Hall of Life Care, on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard west of Interstate 95, has reported 35 COVID-19 deaths to DOH, more than any other facility in the county.
Signature Health Care of Palm Beach at north of Lake Worth Road at Military Trail is second with 24 and Jupiter Rehabilitation and Health Care Center, which is north of Indiantown Road east of I-95, and The Crossings, just south of Lake Worth Road at Military Trail, both have reported 23 deaths.
Hialeah Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Miami-Dade County has reported the most deaths in the state, with 69.
Overall, the state reports 6,641 deaths in long-term care facilities, about 40 percent of the statewide total. Palm Beach County has the second-most such deaths, with 713.
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: As coronavirus cases top 50,000, food lines grow